Nicole Kraftscik is gregarious with a kind and warm smile, easily making others feel comfortable.
She can also be self-deprecating and possesses a keen sense of humour with a joyous, infectious laugh.
But like many other area residents, there have been bumps on the road of life that hide a sadness behind Kraftscik’s piercing blue eyes.
And unlike some who have struggled through turmoil and kept silent, Kraftscik says it was important for her to go public with her own mental-health struggles since it’s part of her personal fabric.
“It’s part of my healing, part of my journey, part of who I am,” Kraftscik says matter-of-factly. “I thought, ‘Let’s rip this Band-Aid off and share my story.’”
Kraftscik, who grew up in Barrie and Port Elgin, says she’d always been an overachiever and felt some pressure while growing up to always reach for the top. But life threw her a curveball when she had to stop her post-secondary studies due to family pressures and then found herself pregnant at 21.
But that experience and the joy her son, Riley, has brought into her life, along with many other things life brings, helped her become the person she is today.
“I certainly probably had mental-health issues way before they were recognized,” says the easily likable Kraftscik, who makes one feel like one is chatting with an old friend.
“I grew up in an environment where you had to be strong, but inside that’s not how I felt.”
She knew she needed help when, in 2017, she attempted suicide due to the burden she felt she was putting on her friends and co-workers at Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital (OSMH).
“Getting help wasn’t something that was top of mind for me, until it became something that was so dire and such a crisis that I had to,” says Kraftscik, who goes on to recount that day five years ago.
She drove to OSMH from her home in Tiny Township because she knew the hospital had a mental-health program.
“The only thing that stopped me from doing what I was doing were the faces of my family really flashing before my eyes,” she says, noting she ended up being admitted to Soldiers’ for several days and regularly visited the mental-health unit the next year-and-a-half.
“I remember those care providers to this day and I’m so grateful that I had that.”
Kraftscik now takes medication for her depression and anxiety and regularly sees a psychologist, who helps her deal with and come up with coping strategies for the many stressors life can bring.
“She helps keep me going,” Kraftscik says of Chantel Coward. “She’ll ask how I’m managing the stress. Am I practising mindfulness?”
And like others who have tried to go off their meds, the 43-year-old knows the pills will likely be part of her daily routine for the rest of her life.
Kraftscik now lives in Tay Township with her husband, Martin, who has had his own struggles over the years.
“We do not have a perfect marriage, but we’ve stuck by one another,” she says, adding that besides her son, Riley, she has two “bonus” daughters with Haley and Taylor as part of her blended family.
“For the kids, I felt it was important to share my story. I don’t know where I’d be if people had given up on me.”
They also have a one-year-old pup named Peggy, who has a prosthetic leg (there’s a taste of the sense of humour) and is a rescue from Egypt, and seven cats. Yes, seven cats!
Since 2019, Kraftscik has headed the Georgian Bay General Hospital (GBGH) Foundation, having previously worked at the OSMH Foundation and Lupus Ontario in fundraising capacities.
“When I started here, they were certainly going through an organization change,” she says.
Kraftscik seems a perfect fit for the philanthropic role that others might find stressful and intimidating since there’s regular pressure to raise funds needed for the hospital or organization where one works.
“This is my first kick at the can as a leader,” Kraftscik tells MidlandToday during an interview at the foundation’s office that’s located just a stone’s throw from the hospital proper.
“We deserve a thriving hospital.”
What makes the job especially challenging is the constant need for donors.
“That weighs heavy on you … What can we achieve?” says Kraftscik, who is quick to point out that they appreciate all donations from the kid giving a $5 bill to huge donations like the one they received in 2020 for $5 million from seasonal Tiny Township resident Marco Mancini’s family foundation.
When Kraftscik started at the foundation, its annual fundraising goal was $1.5 million to $2.2 million. That total now sits at $6.3 million for the current annum.
“But the stress of the job is also the most rewarding part,” she says, adding you always know you’re doing something that benefits the greater community.
Most recently, the foundation raised more than $385,000 during its Power of Giving hybrid gala with proceeds directed to its impact fund, which addresses priority capital needs for GBGH.
One of the key priorities on the horizon for the hospital is building a comprehensive acute mental-health program. This was the inspiration for the event’s focus on mental-health awareness and advocacy.
And this is where Kraftscik decided to share her own story of mental illness and recovery with a wider audience beyond close friends, immediate co-workers and family.
“I remember the moment (friend and colleague) Jen Russell came in and we decided that I would talk about it for the gala,” Kraftscik says. “It was really important.
“People are getting lost in this system, and people are suffering. And, whether it’s your neighbour, your grandmother, your father, or brother or sister, mental health does not discriminate.”
Currently, GBGH cares for approximately 1,700 mental-health patients every year. This works out to about three patients in crisis every day.
The problem, according to Kraftscik, is that the hospital doesn’t have acute mental-health services and is not equipped or funded to care for mental-health patients.
Therefore, when a patient arrives in crisis at the hospital, the emergency room is the first point of contact. From there, he or she will be transferred to an acute mental-health bed at Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre, Soldiers’, Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care or, due to lack of beds, sometimes even farther.
However, when beds are full across the region, which is common, patients must wait at GBGH until an appropriate bed becomes available — sometimes for days — delaying care and contributing to a worsening of their mental-health state.
And Kraftscik says that’s just wrong.
“The system is not working,” she says, noting 44 per cent of those coming to GBGH have both medical and mental-health requirements.
“I know what care can look like when it’s all in one building, and I want that for my hospital … for your hospital … for GBGH.”