Emily's Blog Post #3
Emily's Blog Post #3
“You’re like, ALWAYS sick” is a phrase I’ve become accustomed to hearing this past year, usually accompanied by a quizzical glance. While I’ve had my fair share of colds and fevers this year, most sick days from work and school were related to mental health symptoms, doctors’ appointments, and medication-related side effects.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20% of Canadians experience a mental health (including addiction) problem each year. “Almost half (49%) of those who feel they have suffered from depression or anxiety have never gone to see a doctor about this problem.”
I think this is partly due to trouble finding access to mental health support (I did spend nearly five months on a waitlist to see a psychiatrist), but the stigma surrounding mental illness plays a huge role in the reluctance to seek treatment. Stigma is commonly understood as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. An example of stigma is the belief that mentally ill people are “crazy,” “weak,” or “lazy.”
CAMH states that 46% of Canadians think people use the term mental illness as an excuse for bad behaviour, and 27% say they would be fearful of being around someone who suffers from serious mental illness.
Stigma is partly due to a lack of understanding and a lack of visible symptoms. It’s common sense that someone who has never passed a kidney stone doesn’t know how painful it is to pass a kidney stone. Why is it harder to grasp that someone who’s never experienced mental illness doesn’t know what it’s like to be mentally ill?
Depression is often confused with sadness while anxiety is misinterpreted as stress. While sadness and stress are natural emotions, depression and anxiety are illnesses. While sadness and stress can be eased with things like exercise, mental illness requires medical attention.
Exercise has been linked to preventing or reducing symptoms of depression, but since depression can be genetic, and affects brain chemistry, exercise simply cannot always solve the problem completely. There’s also the fact that different treatments work for different people, so while exercise may work wonders for some, others need much more than that, just like some people don’t respond well to medication.
My first visit to my doctor about depression was six months after I started feeling symptoms. I remember telling her “I’ve tried exercising and I’ve tried to practice good sleep hygiene, but am getting no relief,” to which she explained that if my brain chemistry was off, the endorphins released during exercise wouldn’t affect me the same way they would when I was healthy.
Before I felt any symptoms myself, I had an interest in mental health and had done enough research to understand what the symptoms of depression are. When I actually started to feel them, they hit me like a ton of bricks, like nothing I could have expected or prepared for.
This is why “maybe you need more fresh air,” “just think positive!” and “find a hobby you enjoy doing” don’t work when addressing mental illness. While they may be ways to help someone out of a sad mood or ease stress, they can’t balance someone’s brain chemistry, or get rid of the impact of past abuse and trauma.
I was lucky to have some very supportive friends and family. I think the most important part of support was when people could accept that they didn’t know what it’s like to have depression – and would ask how to help. I had one friend who reminded me to take my medication and would encourage me to check in with my doctor when needed. I had a friend who never made me feel guilty when I didn’t feel like going to a big party or busy bar, and would suggest things like going for a short walk or to a movie instead. Another friend, a psychology student, would answer my questions about the scientific side of things, and often assured me that my symptoms were normal and treatable. Many people were willing to listen to me talk about what I was dealing with, without judgment, and without suggesting ways I could “snap out of it” – all the little things people did added up and helped me get treatment.
Stigma is the reason it took me six months to see a doctor for my symptoms, while my condition worsened from “I’m just in a rut I can get myself out of” to “I can barely function in society or even leave my apartment.” It’s the reason I failed every single midterm one semester. I didn’t want to be seen as weak or lazy by asking for academic accommodation without a physical illness. It’s the reason “I have a headache” was my go-to excuse for missing work, class and even social events. I tried to be honest and said “I’m feeling depressed” a few times, only to get responses like “well it’s an easy assignment, I’m sure you could do it!” (cue panic attack) and “a good night out and a drink will make you feel better” (WRONG). So wrong, and also a dangerous gateway to self-medicating with alcohol and street drugs, which worsens symptoms, and can lead someone to develop an addiction. Stigma doesn’t just keep people from getting help; it can actually make them much, much worse. So yeah, I had a lot of headaches last year.
Stigma is also the reason I’m now open about my experience with mental illness. No more “headaches,” since I’m not ashamed of something that’s not my fault. The more I talk about it, the more people reach out to me with their stories of mental health struggle, and the more I realize how common it is. Talking about mental health openly leads to a greater understanding that those with mental illness are sick, not lazy or weak, and more importantly, capable of getting better.
I’m Emily, and I’m passionate about mental wellness, fitness & yoga. I’m obsessed with the outdoors and wiener dogs. Most importantly, I’m a peanut butter addict.