Stopping the Stigma: Sharing My Experience

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I turned 25 last weekend. It was also a chance to celebrate 5 years of being in recovery. I remember eating my 20th birthday cake in the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) inpatient unit, days before I left the hospital for the last time. I never thought I’d be here today: alive and well, a soon-to-be university graduate, and a volunteer with the Mood Disorders Association’s Stop the Stigma, telling my story to thousands of Toronto high school students and the people who care about them. The Mood Disorders Association gave me much-needed hope when they spoke at my school, when I was in grade 12, and now I have the chance to pass it on.

Each time I speak, I remind myself of the reason I’m here: Somewhere in the audience are several young people, who feel isolated in a daily struggle with anxiety, depression, or mania; with psychosis, self-harm, or suicidal thoughts. I want to tell them I’ve been there. I lived with mental illness for ten years. I know what it’s like to suffer like this, and how hard it is when you’re still just a kid, still trying to get a handle on this thing called life. I know what it’s like to feel ashamed, hopeless, and out of control. I also know that it can get better.

I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder when I was ten years old. I was bullied in elementary school and rejected in junior high. By the time I got to high school, I was painfully shy and my self-esteem was in the toilet. It wasn’t long before I started sinking into a deep depression, and a year after graduation I tried to kill myself.

This is not a story that’s easy to tell. Because of the stigma that still exists, I take the chance of having doors closed on me for talking about my mental illness. But talking about it is exactly what needs to be done, if we want to change the attitudes that perpetuate this stigma in the first place. By talking about it, we’re opening doors for all those children and teenagers out there, who may have never thought it was okay to speak up, who may desperately want help but have no idea where to turn. By sharing my story, I want to give them hope. I want to shatter the silence that keeps them prisoners in their own minds, and tell them that they deserve health and happiness, that they can get their lives back, and that giving up is never the answer.

This was my first year with Stop the Stigma, and the impact was amazing. Over and over I kept thinking to myself: ‘I wish every school was participating in something like this!’ Mental health is one of the most important issues facing today’s youth, but unfortunately, it’s been one of the least talked about. I’m so excited to be a part of the movement that’s helping to change that. Many students approached me after the presentations, to share their personal struggles and express their desire for help. I was so impressed by the courage of these remarkable young people, reaching out from a place of despair and self-doubt to grab hold of the lifeline of hope. Some agreed to talk to a counselor for the very first time. Others renewed their commitment to continue with treatment and therapy, after hearing how important this was, and continues to be, in my own recovery.  

Bringing mental health awareness into the schools also gave teachers the opportunity to have an open dialogue about these issues with their students. I heard about one class that discussed the phenomenon of self-harm, after attending their school’s assembly. Other teachers felt more equipped to incorporate coping skills into the curriculum. And students felt more comfortable talking openly about mental illness and stigma, with each other and with the adults in their lives. Many had friends and family members that were showing symptoms of a mood disorder, and learning more about these illnesses gave them the confidence to help and support the people they care about.

What excites me most about Stop the Stigma is the number of lives we touch along the way. For so many, these assemblies and school events were full of life-changing moments. Each person who learns something new, who gains insight, empathy, and understanding, who makes the decision to reach out for help, all these people go on to touch more and more lives, in an incredible ripple effect with a far-reaching impact. I’m so honoured to be a part of it. After so many years of suffering, I’ve been able to turn a profoundly negative experience into something positive and inspiring, something that changes many lives, including my own. It’s by far the best thing I’ve ever done.