February 24, 2012 · Updated 5:04 PM

Williams Lake is one of 14 communities across Canada hosting Women and Wellness events this month in support of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Cariboo women will gather in Williams Lake on Feb. 29, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. to raise their glasses and their voices to break the silence about mental illness, says Sheila Cohen, CMHA representative. CMHA is hosting the event with sponsorship from Shopper’s Drug Mart.

Cohen says the evening will be comprised of inspirational guest speakers, entertainment, delicious hors d’oeuvres, refreshments, and fabulous conversation among guests.

There is no charge for participation and details on the event and venue will be provided to women as they register to participate.

Women can register by contacting Cohen at 250-305-4487 or by e-mail at sheila.cohen@cmhawl.org or Bettina Schoen at 250-305-4420 or by e-mail at bettina.schoen@cmhawl.org

Women and Wellness is also a unique and popular event that supports the important work of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), a nation-wide, charitable organization that promotes mental health and supports the recovery of people experiencing mental illness.

The money raised through donations helps the association deliver education and support programs for people afflicted with mental illness, their loved ones and the public.

Last year, Cohen says proceeds raised in Williams Lake helped support CMHA’s local multiculturalism program. This year’s donations will go toward CMHA’s local Crisis and Counselling Program.

Now in its ninth year, Women and Wellness is a movement created by and for women and is therefore a special night designed to unite and empower women, reaching out to those who are affected by a range of mental health issues and concerns; whether they are experiencing these issues personally or acting as an advocate for someone who is not in a position to advocate for themselves.

“Through education and encouragement we hope to see a society in which mental health and mental illness is discussed openly and in which those requiring help feel empowered to ask for it” says Helen MacDonnell, Women and Wellness founding chair.  “We will take the first steps toward this by harnessing the incredible power that is created by hundreds of women determined to fight the stigma associated with mental illness.”

MacDonnell started Women & Wellness in January 2001 when she was housebound by a storm and couldn’t get out for a break.

So, instead, she invited 20 women friends in for a party. They repeated the event the next winter. There wasn’t an event in 2003 because MacDonnell’s brother died that month by suicide. She realized — too late — that he suffered from bi-polar disorder, something she knew little about.

Therefore, she began her journey to understand mental health disorders better. She was astounded to learn how common mental illnesses are and how stigma and lack of awareness prevents sufferers from receiving help.

In January 2004, the first Women and Wellness was held at MacDonnell’s Riverview, New Brunswick home, where 54 women gathered to laugh, cry, share stories, and the positive energy only a group of women can create.

Over the past six years, the fundraiser has received more than $600,000 in donations and caught the attention of CMHA branches from coast to coast, with a total of 10 events being held in Atlantic Canada, Ontario, and British Columbia last winter.

The objective is to raise $1 million a year for the next five years.

While local and regional sponsors have been very supportive, there is still tremendous opportunity for growth with new events, say organizers.

In 2011, Women and Wellness experienced a fresh burst of new energy that resulted from the support of Shoppers Drug Mart as a strategic community partner across Canada.

Shoppers Drug Mart has chosen women’s health as its core cause making it the only Canadian company to dedicate its resources to improve the health of all Canadian women in body, mind and spirit, say event organizers.

Their women’s health initiative connects women to health information and resources that help ensure their health only gets stronger.