Tom Walker
Tom WalkerImage by: Max Rosenstein
Tom Walker
10 November 2021

Tom Walker On Overcoming Adversity Through Community

5 minutes read time

From childhood to today, Tom Walker’s has overcome many challenges that have not only led him to become a social worker, but find space in communities to receive support needed, and give support to those in need.

Tom sat down with us recently in the barber chair to discuss what led him to become a social worker for ORNGE, mental and physical health, his reflection on mental health in 2021 and much more.

What led you to becoming a social worker for ORNGE?

I had worked in addictions and mental health for 25 years before my brother’s death, which had police involvement. At the inquest, I worked hard to ensure that police and paramedics were trained to deal with mental health and addiction issues, including strategies to deal with things like excited delirium. As a result, paramedics across the province of Ontario were requested to receive training in dealing with combative patients. This mandate, combined with my experience in training people who have similar challenges, created an opportunity. I was offered the contract to train Ornge staff, and in that time, my work and experience with trauma compelled senior leadership to hire me full-time at Ornge.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your life? How did you overcome them?

The ‘biggest challenges’ are hard to say; as a child living in poverty, physical, psychological, and sexual violence was incredibly difficult. How I overcame them is a combination of communities I lived in (it takes a village to raise a child. The village included my bus driver, who I now call Mom, and her husband and children I see as my brothers and sisters—additionally, my hockey coaches, wrestling coaches and later my boxing coaches from amateur to professional). For me, boxing gave me a sense of accomplishment, discipline and motivation. Meeting my partner in life and starting a family of our own is also a great contributor.

What’s your motivation for doing Movember?

I am motivated to educate people about the warning signs, reduce the stigma, and invite people to step forward and get help or medical attention when needed. In terms of suicide, people reach out regularly, for which I’m grateful. Many first responders are fearful of the consequences of reaching out. I continue to push against the stigma that says having these thoughts are a sign of weakness. I believe that reaching out is likely the bravest thing a human being can do. In my personal life, my father attempted suicide many times. He taught all of his sons that seeking help was a sign of weakness (he was wrong). Every time I support someone who is suicidal to stay alive – I prove him wrong.

As someone who watched his mother die of colon cancer because she could not take time off work for a check-up, I learned from her mistakes. In 2019 I had bladder cancer and was able to catch it in time; I know the benefit of early response and the importance of listening to your body.

If you could tell yourself one thing, while going through the challenges with mental health and suicide that you have gone through, what would it be?

Reaching out is a sign of strength, and things can be done to make life worth living. Give yourself that opportunity – accept help when offered and seek help when it is not offered, or you need it. Know that you will discover that you have depression, ADHD, dyslexia and PTSD that you’ll need support for. Do the work - your hard work pays off!

How much have your own challenges guided you towards becoming a social worker?

I had a mentor who once said 99% of social workers are dysfunctional and that the other one percent were lying. It makes sense that someone who has had challenges and was supported by a community of good people, including but not limited to coaches, my bus driver and her family, teachers and friend’s parents, would want to give back!

" Reaching out is a sign of strength, and things can be done to make life worth living. Give yourself that opportunity – accept help when offered and seek help when it is not offered, or you need it. "

Mental health in 2021 has so many factors that impact it, from social media to new technologies and ways of communicating – not to mention a pandemic. What are ways that you personally find peace and balance?

2021 will go down in history as one of the most discordant and polarizing times in history.Humans are social and need connection, touch and relationships to fill their souls. That said, without technology, this pandemic would’ve been much more of a catastrophe. Kids were able to talk in a way that they were comfortable with, while adults grew into it, and many are embracing the ‘new normal’ of technology; as an extrovert, connecting with someone over a phone or a computer gives me energy and a sense of connection. Additionally, there are great exercise routines available via the Internet, and I have recently taken up vinyasa yoga and other ways of maintaining health and exercise.

Do you have any go-to resources or tools for people you work with, or for yourself, as far as managing mental health?

Movement is essential. That can be on a continuum of walking, jogging, running, yoga, tai chi, walking the dog, to intense exercise. Because of busyness and the legacy of PTSD, my ‘movement’ is very extreme, i.e. hitting the heavy bag, vinyasa yoga, circuit training, bicycle or stationary bike riding etc. People often say they can’t find the time to do it. If you spend any amount of time in front of the TV, then, arguably, you have the time! Additionally, I suggest that people find a therapist when they are healthy. If a person has an Employee and Family Assistance Plan (EFAP), they can use that to find a therapist that they like for maintenance, rather than waiting until they are unwell.

What experiences growing up have informed your work today?

A tricky question to answer – my lived experience informs the theoretical constructs that I use in my life today. Knowing how I want to be treated and letting people in on some lived experiences to help them see that I may be trustworthy, understand pain or have credibility has been my approach in the work that I do.

Knowing what you know now and the experiences you went through, what would you say to your younger self?

This is a big question; people in power aren’t always dangerous, trust yourself and things will get more manageable, and if not you’ll be okay; don’t just think about something and then wait for it to happen - make it happen; trust your ideas. Stop apologizing.

Donate to Tom's Mo Space here.