They say what we don’t know can’t hurt us, but sometimes, what we don’t know is precisely what hurts us. And just because we can’t see something, doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Mental Health week isn’t until May, but it’s an issue we should be openly talking about year-round.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association website, one in five Canadians will personally experience mental illness in their lifetime.
The site also stated that it is estimated that 10-20 per cent of Canadian youth are affected by a mental disorder or illness, the single most disabling group of disorders worldwide.
And sadly, only one in five children in this country who need mental health services will receive them.
So why is there still so much stigma around mental health?
When I was first diagnosed with a mental illness, I felt embarrassed, ashamed and angry.
I didn’t trust doctors, I didn’t believe in medication, and I was scared of what people would think of me.
I used to hear of people on antidepressant medications and think, “Suck it up, it’s all in your head”.
I refused to even consider that psychology and psychiatry were legitimate areas of study, for no reason other than I just didn’t understand the nature of mental illness.
For more than 15 years, I lived a life where my moods would swing drastically up and down, often several times a day.
Despite having friends, teachers and doctors suggest there might be something wrong, I thought I was fine, just perhaps a little more emotional than the average person.
After several failed relationships, loss of friends and growing tension in my family, I still didn’t think there was anything wrong with me.
A couple of years ago, I was beginning to spiral out of control. I was trying to make sense of my life and came to the conclusion it wasn’t worth living. Rather than seek help, I choose a path filled with self-destruction.
Then one day my best friend sat me down and said she was scared for my life. For some reason, her words hit home and for the first time in my life, I believed I needed help.
I went to see a counsellor and she recommended that I be put on anti-depression medication. I saw my family doctor and he concurred and put me on a drug.
For a few months, I felt a bit better, though I was no where near out of the woods. So I decided to stop taking the meds and tried to battle my issues on my own through living a healthier lifestyle, cutting out the indulgences, and focusing on trying to feel better.
Several more months passed and I was starting to feel that horrible anxiety and depression all over again. This time I went to see a psychiatrist.
After reviewing my files and speaking with me, he diagnosed me with bipolar disorder, what used to be called manic-depression.
I was put on a mood stabilizer and an anti-anxiety medication, which I protested at first. My psychiatrist said I had no reason to feel ashamed about my diagnosis. He put it to me in a way I could make sense of it. He said if I was diabetic, I would be put on medicine to treat the disease. Then he said that having a mental illness is no different – if I wanted to feel better, I needed to regulate my brain chemistry. I did and slowly started to feel more “normal”.
I was coming to terms with the fact that I was sick and that I needed medication to sustain a functional existence, even though I wasn’t fully on board with the idea of taking pills to feel better.
I would self-adjust my medication, albeit a terrible idea, and my moods would fluctuate. I came off one drug altogether because I decided I was fine. Then I would only sometimes take the mood stabilizer, and loved how I would feel – I would feel high, euphoric, unstoppable. I barely slept for days on end, flying high, but then I would crash and fall into a debilitating depression. One day, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore and I contemplated suicide. But the end of that day, it was no longer “if” I killed myself, but rather “how” I’d do it.
For once, I decided to make a good decision and rather than harming myself, I went to make an appointment with my psychiatrist, whom I’d stopped seeing months before because I thought I was OK.
The receptionist took one look at me and told me to wait in the waiting room. She found one of the mental health nurses who took me to her office and talked with me, then went and got my doctor.
I had a meltdown, but I was in a safe place. It was the worst I’d felt in years, but it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I realized, that was my rock bottom and I had somewhat of a breakthrough.
The doctor adjusted my medications and told me I have no choice, I have to take them, which I have been doing religiously, along with regular counselling and yoga.
And after all of those years of living in a cloud of anger, sadness, loathing, confusion, and extreme highs, I can finally see clearly.
It is so important to seek help when you feel something isn’t right in your head. We can’t see mental illness, but it affects so many people. A lot of us, myself included, were scared to seek help, scared of what the doctor might tell us, and scared to take medication because we didn’t know how others would react to it. For me, the key to coping was communication.
Talking to my friends and loved ones about what I was dealing with, so they, in turn, knew how to deal with me.
It’s been a long road, a long struggle, but I can say with good faith I’m here today, happy and healthy, because I sought help for my mental illness.
[Originally published in the Miramichi Leader on Jan. 22, 2015.]