Archive for the ‘Fighting Stigma’ Category

It’s been a while since I’ve last posted. There are a number of reasons I can point to (e.g. the fact that my midterm exams seem to go all the way up until finals week), but honestly, the main culprit is my lack of symptoms. Sure, I’ve had my share of anxieties and stresses over the past two months, but there haven’t been any tangible things to write about.

At first, it seemed to me that I had hit a roadblock of sorts; I’m out of symptoms to write about, so I guess the blog is over. But then, who would I be doing justice? Isn’t the whole point of this blog to explore the many ways that we can get over our anxiety? 

I’m not saying that I’ve been “cured” or that I’m fully free of my anxiety and depression (don’t listen to people who tell you that), I’ve just learned how to cope better. I still get a bit overwhelmed in large public areas, I doubt I will ever feel totally calm while travelling, and I know I will not have my last panic attack anytime soon. But I do feel like I’m controlling my anxiety, rather than living a life where it controls me. My anxiety may influence the activities I choose to partake in, but it won’t dictate my life.

This whole journey for me really started two years ago when I had my first panic attack. I’ve written about my past experiences with mental health issues before on this blog, so I won’t go too far back. Today, I just wanted to give an overview of the progress I’ve made over the past year to perhaps give hope to those who aren’t quite there yet.

Just under a year ago, when I dropped out of my psychology degree because of the onset of panic attacks and depression, I was in a very unstable state. My emotions were all over the place, I was constantly in a state of terror, and I had very little control over myself in general. I couldn’t get on a bus to go back to school because of a particularly nasty panic attack. I moved back in my parents, and I am incredibly lucky for the support they’ve given me. I spent a few weeks in the house without ever setting foot outside because I was too scared of what might happen.

Eventually, I started going to group therapy sessions. I was terribly anxious whenever I had to walk to the clinic, but I knew that at least my peers would understand the feeling. I quickly learned that I wasn’t the only one suffering with crippling anxiety. In fact, I wasn’t even the worst off.

Slowly but surely, I started getting out of the house. I walked to the grocery store once in awhile, and while I could barely last ten minutes, it was a small step in the right direction. I went out for meals a couple times with my parents, careful to make sure I had a clear escape if needed, but I made it through.

Starting this blog was one of the main outlets I had at the time. Writing down my thoughts and feelings helped me to come to terms with the fact that my mental health isn’t always stellar. It brought up memories of my occasionally depressed, and often anxious, childhood and adolescence, and helped me let go of some resentment I felt (mostly towards myself). Seeing my experiences in writing was a way of validating them. I wasn’t just being selfish and indulgent, I really did (and still do) have a problem. 

By the time I went back to my apartment in Montreal in early May, I was almost completely over the agoraphobia that I had fallen into. I still had a lot of growing to do over the summer, but it was much easier without the constant panic attacks I was having before. I slowly built back my work ethic. I had a couple part-time jobs that I found online so I could work from home, and they helped me regain my attention span that I seemed to have lost.

That’s one thing that doesn’t seemed to get talked about enough: chronic anxiety really does a number on your attention span. I hesitate to say that I suffer from ADHD symptoms, but I really did have a tough time re-adjusting to the life of a student (long hours studying). I had troubles managing my time when I first got back to school, but luckily I had the foresight to give myself a bit of a break and take a lighter course load.

Now, a full year later from when my panic attacks started to get the best of me, I can say that I feel like a new person. I’m not rid of my anxiety, I’m not rid of my mood swings, and I certainly haven’t mastered my attention span, but I feel much more self-aware. I’m aware of the troubles I have and I’m aware of what I need to work on.

My one wish this holiday season is that everyone out there is able to get a little bit more of a grasp on their mental health. Happy New Year to all.


mental health stigmaMental illness is stigmatized. Society looks down on those of us suffering from mental health issues. Sometimes we’re looked at with fear or apprehension; other times with judgement or condescension. As I mentioned in a previous post, a recent survey found that almost half of the respondents believed mental illness to be an “excuse for poor behavior and personal failings.” About 42% said they would no longer socialize with a friend diagnosed with a major mental illness.

The human race is certainly not devoid of other types of stigma. We stigmatize people for a variety of reasons, from sexual orientation to religious upbringing. So why is mental health stigma worth talking about?

Well, for one, it affects treatment outcomes. An individual suffering from a mental illness is much less likely to seek help than the same person with a physical illness. With a large lack of social support, that individual will probably find it difficult to adhere to a treatment regime even if they do seek help.

Mental health stigma can also prevent people from getting jobs, securing loans, even having children. Mental illness makes it harder to make friends, keep up relationships, and feel accepted.

I could write an entire article (perhaps an entire book) on the obstacles created by mental health stigma, but today I want to give some tips on how you can help reduce this stigma.

1. Education. 

The first step in overcoming any type of intolerance is education. Before we can address a problem, we must first be aware of it. Since mental health education does not come passively, you must seek out this information. To start out, read up on some general psychiatry. The Canadian Mental Health Association is a great place to start. The National Institute of Mental Health is another great starting point. Wherever you’re looking, just make sure it’s accurate, verified, and unbiased information.

You may want to get a little more specific with your research if you have a close friend or family member who was recently diagnosed. If your brother tells you he has major depressive disorder, instead of judging him, read up on the disorder. Hear him out. Learn about how debilitating MDD is. Listen to the symptoms he faces on a regular basis.

We all have preconceived notions of what it means to be “depressed” or “schizophrenic”, but most people actually have a frighteningly incorrect understanding of these illnesses (you can probably attribute most of that miseducation to media portrayals of mental illness…more on that later). Only through re-education can you correct these lapses in judgement.

2. Conversation.

Talk about your mental health more often. The less we hear about a topic, the more easily it can become stigmatized. So open up. You don’t have to spill out your darkest secrets, but you can start small. Everyone has mental health – it only seems to become relevant in our society when that health is compromised. We can change that by changing the way we converse. Everyone feels depressed and anxious sometimes, but we rarely talk about it. If we can get to the point where it’s okay to say “I’m depressed” or “I had a panic attack yesterday”, maybe we can be on our way to eliminating mental health stigma.

3. Language reform.

The last thing – and perhaps the hardest thing – you can do to help eliminate mental health stigma is to change the way you talk about mental health. Mental health vocabulary is often used in a derogatory manner, sometimes unconsciously. Speaking about mental health in this way perpetuates the ideas that cause stigma: that mental illnesses are not real afflictions, that “the mentally ill” should be avoided, and that individuals with mental illness are just weak and whiny.

In order to illustrate my point, I thought I would go through some commonly heard phrases that contribute to stigma and delineate why you shouldn’t say them.

  • “Amy gets so moody sometimes – she’s so bipolar”
  • “Ben is acting really weird, I think he’s schizo”

In both examples, the speaker is implying that a complex illness like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia is simply “moodiness” or strange behavior. Phrases like these trivialize the experience of the individuals who actually suffer from these illnesses. Also, saying things like this perpetuates the idea that mental illnesses are not real illnesses, and are merely normal experiences exaggerated by “weak” and “lazy” people. Just because someone is moody does not mean they have bipolar disorder.

  • “I would rather kill myself than take that exam again”
  • “I can’t believe I didn’t get invited to that party – I’m really depressed now”

Suicidal ideation is a common symptom of a range of illnesses, most notably major depression. As someone who has attempted suicide in the past, I find it incredibly insulting when someone implies their day-to-day woes are comparable to the mental state one is in before attempting suicide. Similarly, sadness is not the same thing as depression, and implying so is trivializing the experience of someone who is clinically depressed.

In both of these examples, the speaker (who is not mentally ill) is comparing their daily experiences to the experiences of someone with an illness. I would never say “I have a terrible ache in my side – this pain is worse than cancer” so why should you compare your experience to my illness?

  • “Did you see the news story about that psychotic criminal last night?”

In this example, the speaker has labeled a criminal as “psychotic” with (presumably) no real reasoning to do so. The word “psychotic” refers to the state of psychosis, which involves hallucinations, delusions and a general loss of contact with reality. Throwing around labels like “psychotic”, especially in the context of crime, is stigmatizing to those individuals suffering from real psychotic disorders like schizophrenia. Psychosis is a disease state, not some sort of umbrella term to describes criminals and other social deviants.

  • “You’re acting crazy – are you off your meds or something?”

People who take anti-depressants or other psychotropic medications (anti-psychotics, benzodiazepines, etc.) are often looked down upon. Taking a medication for depression is no different than taking a medication for the flu, yet society sees things quite differently. Society sees those who take psychiatric medications as “crazy”, “weak”, “lazy”.

Assuming that someone is taking psychiatric medications just because of a particular change in mood or behavior is insulting to both that individual and all the individuals who are actually taking these medications. It perpetuates the stigma of psychiatric medications, which enforces one of the biggest barriers individuals with mental illness face when seeking treatment.

Wrapping things up…

Fighting any sort of intolerance is a difficult battle, and is certainly not won with a single defeat. To fight stigma, we have to change the way we think, feel, and speak about illness. We need to educate ourselves and seek out stories. This isn’t about being politically correct, this is about making people feel comfortable living their lives. It’s not easy, and we all slip up sometimes (I use the term “crazy” sometimes by accident), but if we try, I know we can change the way society sees mental illness.

How do you fight stigma? If you have any ideas I haven’t mentioned, please leave a comment!



photo by: Bhumika.B

Silence spreads stigma.

Yesterday, I opened up to the world of Facebook and told my story of mental illness. I was astounded by the overwhelming response I received. It turns out that many people I know can relate quite readily to my story. For some reason, this shocked me. But why? According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, about 20% of Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Similar numbers are reported in other developed countries. That’s about 1 in 5 people, a statistic that I’ve heard many times before. So why should it shock me that personal friends of mine had suffered mental illness as well?

I think the answer lies in our society’s obsession with statistics. Numbers give us facts, concrete ideas about how the world works. “1 in 5 people will suffer from a mental illness.” That’s a neat fact to know. It sounds like it’s getting some sort of point across – look, mental illness exists! But the real issue is that it doesn’t seem to be getting any point across. In a 2008 survey conducted by the the Globe and Mail, 42% of respondents said they would no longer socialize with a friend diagnosed with a major mental illness. Almost half of the respondents believed that mental illness is just an excuse for “poor behavior and personal failings.”

Statistics are cold. You can’t relate to a statistic, you can’t talk to a statistic, you can’t find comfort in a statistic. Our obsession with numbers creates an almost tangible veil over society. We appear to be open and accepting, but we’re not. We think that by spreading around how common mental illness is, we’ve done our part in fighting stigma – there, the battle’s won.  But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Knowing how common mental illness is without being able to reach out and talk about it leaves us feeling even more alone than before.

I don’t want to sound like I’m criticizing anyone. I am grateful for every stigma campaign that exists, and I’m happy those numbers are so widely known. At least mental illness isn’t just the ever-present elephant in the room, looming in the corner, but never being mentioned. We do talk about it – just not in the right way. At fault is social desirability: our other obsession. Everyone wants to appear like they’re “doing the right thing,” but no one wants to open up and share their secrets. Sharing personal parts of yourself leaves you open for judgement and hurt. We go to great lengths to avoid these things. We share personless facts, but not personal stories.

And hey, who can blame us? Does anyone really like being naked in front of the world, no secrets to hide behind? Of course not. Many individuals suffering from a major mental illness are simply not able to speak up. It’s too hard on an already damaged psyche. Some of us can’t speak up for fear of losing work, losing friends or losing children. But without these stories, our society falls into the dark. We see the mentally ill as the homeless people on the streets, as the perpetrators of vicious crimes, and as characters in our movies. We don’t see them as our friends, our mothers, and our first-grade teachers.

This is not a rally to get everyone suffering from a mental illness to write a memoir. This is not a lecture on “doing the right thing.” (What is the right thing anyway?) All I want is to open a dialogue. Even if you don’t have a diagnosable mental illness, talk about your mental health with your friends. Stop using words like “bipolar”, “panic attacks” and “schizophrenia” if you’ve never experienced them – recognize that these are serious conditions. Talk about those times when you’ve felt depressed after being dumped or losing a grandparent. Open up about that panic attack you had that one time – but please don’t overuse the term!

Communicate. We’re social creatures, and yet sometimes communication is what we fear most. Nothing will ever change if we don’t take action. I urge you not to hide in the dark. There’s no need to open up to the world at large, but at least tell your close friends and family. Before we can understand a problem, we must first identify it.

If you want to share your story with me personally, visit my contact page and drop me a line. I will keep everything confidential – and I’m told I’m a pretty good listener.