Local businesswoman uses her talents to put mental health at the forefront

Jennifer St. John lived in a household where it would be years before her mother was diagnosed as bipolar

Jennifer St. John is still advocating for her mother.

Even though she died days before her 62nd birthday, St. John has woven a successful business into a brutally honest storytelling about her mother’s struggle with mental illness and the impact it had on her growing up and her family.

Marnie & Michael is a leather bag and accessories company, named after St. John’s parents who passed away within 10 months of each other. She donates 15 per cent of all profits from her Penetanguishene-based business to charities and causes that focus on mental health.

St. John’s mom went untreated for bipolar until she was diagnosed in her early 50s.

“In the 70s there was just not any support or a lot of knowledge or education, and I really felt alone growing up,” says St. John.

It was at about the age of six that St. John got an inkling that her home life was not the same as some of her friends.

“It started with sleepovers with my friends, and when people had an interaction with my mom she was very manic, with super highs and lows, but she also masked a lot of what she was going through with some unhealthy coping mechanisms,” she explains. “But I was young and thought the problem was alcohol and drugs.”

It was when she turned thirteen that St. John was able to grasp just how unstable things were.

“I couldn’t name it, but we were very unstable and moved around a lot, different schools and living in multiple places. My mom and dad tried to stay together, but it wasn’t a healthy relationship and when my mom wasn’t with my dad she was with someone else.”

The upheaval was challenging for her and her siblings.

As time moved on and St. John began to find her niche in the world, she became estranged from her mom after trying countless times to encourage her to get help.

“We had tried multiple times to get her help, family members and friends, but no one is going to get the help unless they want it.”

Eventually, her mother sought out that help.

“Things just came together, and she decided it was time.”

St. John says it was about finding the right professionals for therapy and figuring out the cocktail of drugs that were going to work.

“It was probably in the last 10 years before my mom was diagnosed that I heard the term bipolar, but absolutely it was finally having a road map, and that’s the key.”

St. John reconnected with her mother and the change she saw in her following the diagnosis was night and day.

“I had been estranged from my mom for a period of time and I remember when I saw her after a two-year period, and she literally looked like a different person, even physically the way she presented herself.”

While St. John agrees there is much more awareness about mental health, she feels there is still much work to be done.

Across the region, Marnie & Michael bags can be found in about eight stores, with plans to expand across Ontario and to different parts of Canada.

On Saturday, May 6, St. John will be hosting the first Spring Revival in Barrie, a fundraiser for the Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre Foundation, with 20 local businesses participating during a day of free activities and a guest speaker series with a focus on mental health.

This is taking place from noon until 5 p.m. at Sevenoaks Academy, 190 Cook Street.

From 7 p.m. until 10 p.m., there is a VIP charity fashion event, and tickets must be purchased at a cost of $75.

For more information about Marnie & Michael click online.

Banner image: Jennifer St. John – Barrie 360 photo