I sit here with my cup of tea and think of one question I am often asked by people when I tell them I’m a mental health educator/advocate.
“Why do you do what you do?”
My answer is usually something along the line, that living with a mental illness myself, I know how hard it can be, and the public’s stigma and misconceptions around it. I hope to educate and get people talking about it, as it affects 1 in 4 people, and 500,000 Canadians have missed work today because of a mental illness, and those are the ones we know about.
Yes, I know from firsthand experience what it is like to live with a mental illness. The stigma, misconceptions and days of frustration because you can’t seem to function “like everybody else can” I have been down to Hades and back so many times I should get frequent flyer points, and had days where it just took too much energy to get out of bed and get dressed. Days where, doing the very basic things like shower and eat, were too much for me.
I also know, that the one with the illness, is not the only one affected by it.
I was brought up in a family where one, if not both of my parents had an undiagnosed mental illness, and they self-medicated with alcohol. I can tell you that not one of us 9 children got out of that family unscathed.
I look back now and wonder how any of us got out of there alive. I also now realize, they were in a lot of pain. Mental illness was not something you talked about in my family, even as some of my brothers showed obvious signs. We didn't have “an elephant in the room”, we had a herd of them all under the same roof.
I remember the craziness, chaos, and unpredictability while growing up, and I remember at 4 years old wanting to die.
I remember growing up and as an adult wondered why it seemed I could not remember doing things, having bouts of depression, and anxiety that followed me around. I remember crashing and burning in 2001 and no longer able to work at a job I loved, and was good at, losing our house, and credit, and my world crashing down around me as I could no longer keep the façade together.
I also remember being correctly diagnosed in 2003, and finally understanding what was wrong with me. With the tenacity of a “terrier with a bone” I worked, with the help of many amazing people, harder than I ever did in my life to get better. And the good news is, I did get better.
I will always have my illness, but I am not my illness.
Yes I am a statistic. I am one of those 1 in 5 Canadians who have a mental illness, I was 1 of those “75% of children and youth with a mental illness who will not receive treatment," and “there but the grace of God”, I am not included in the #1 accidental death of youth, suicide!
Yes, I am a statistic. I am living proof that with the correct diagnose, understanding and support, one can have a very fulfilling life, while having a mental illness.
I am a statistic, but I am more than that, as is anyone with a mental illness. I am a mother, wife, friend, and writer. I have captained my dragon boat team, play Ringette and belong to a singing group. I volunteer for various organizations and I am a very much loved member of my community.
I have talked to my doctors medical and practicum students. Along with nursing and psychology students, and various groups of youth. I hope to talk to more groups, and various places including colleges and universities.
I also know, that being correctly diagnosed probably saved my life.
So now you know why I do what I do. You can also make a difference.
Start talking about mental illness, and why mental health is important to everyone. Realize that having a mental illness is not a character flaw, or anything like Hollywood portrays.
Each and every one of these people are very successful in their chosen field, and it does my heart good to see they are standing up, sharing their own, very personal stories, and helping to end the stigma on mental illness.
Will I ever meet these people, probably not, but I do have something in common with them. I also speak about my experiences and advocate and educate about mental illness and mental health challenges. No, I will never be on national television, I do not have a media team putting together my campaign, but I, as one person, continue to do what I do, and like the Bell Canada spokespersons, I am making a difference.
This last December I had the opportunity to once again speak to some youth at one of the local high schools. I spoke to a grade 11/12 psychology class, and as always, was amazed at these youth. I loved speaking to them, opening some great dialogue, answering their amazing questions, and, as always, before we knew it time was up.
The teacher of this program is amazing, she is really interested and connected with her students, and it shows. During the next couple of classes, she asks the students to write a short note to me, about my presentation and what they thought of it. This, too me, is a gift.
No matter how many times I have talked to her students-(I have been doing it for 4 years now) - and the comments that are sent to me, they always surprise me, bring a smile to my face and at times a tear to my eye. These kids are smart, well-articulated, and get it.
This shows me, that one person can make a difference. Here are a few of those comments
“Thank you for speaking to my class. You really opened our eyes about Dissociative Identity Disorder and made us understand that it isn't what Hollywood makes it out to be.”
“The fact that you have been to the lowest of lows and come out such a happy person is very inspiring...”
“ You made me open my eyes more in life and realize that my life is crap right now but will get better one day…you showed people that there’s more out there in life and that they just have to wait for that day to come.”
“You have made me realize there is so much more to life”
“I think people have a lot a misconceptions about mental illness and you did a great job clearing those up”
“Your presentation was truly inspiring because despite what you have been through you know who you are. I think it’s hard to find yourself, regardless of the situation. You helped me understand that even if it is hard, I will find who I am, and who I want to become.”
“..I realized human beings are very tough and can persevere through almost anything…”
“… It helped me understand how to see and treat people with D.I.D. and also other mental health issues.”
“Your story was really meaningful and inspired me. Life can suck but it can be good and never give up, remember better times are coming.”
For some of these youth, this is the very 1st time they have learned, discussed and asked questions about mental illness. And I know, that for some my stories resonate with them because this is the first time in their life they learn that they are not alone.
I am not and never will be a celebrity. I am not and never will be a national spokesman, but I do know I make a difference. I will continue to do what I do, quietly, in my corner of the world. And when I hit times where I wonder if I am making a difference, I will pull out the student’s comments and read them once again.
I am not the only one making a difference. There are many, many individuals and organizations out there doing their part in helping end the stigma on mental illness. A few individuals I know about are
Kristen Bower http://adventuresofasurvivor.blogspot.ca/
Ashley Pfeifer http://onceuponawarrior.squarespace.com/
Siobhan Brannigan http://apositivefromanegative.tumblr.com/
The following organizations are doing a great job and have amazing resources on their sites, be it how to talk to or help someone with a mental illness.
Partners for mental Health http://www.partnersformh.ca/
The Canadian Mental Health Association http://www.cmha.ca/
And here is an amazing resource for parents with children with mental health issues and challenges. This is a B.C. organization, but great resources.
The F.O.R.C.E. Society for Children and Mental Health, http://www.forcesociety.com/
It is amazing to see the energy, passion, and drive that these individuals and organizations have. We All believe that through better education and understanding, we CAN make a difference, and help END THE STIGMA and misunderstandings surrounding mental health issues.
Start talking and keep on talking, long after the campaigns are out done and out of the limelight. Just because the causes and campaigns are over, does not mean that stigma surrounding mental health stops.
I will never have the lime light shining on me, but I do know that by my talking, I shine a light that reaches and helps someone else.
Those are my thoughts for the day.
Cheers and be well