A few days ago, I had an incredible opportunity to talk to a class of McGill University social work students about living with anxiety and depression. I’ve been upfront about my struggles here on the blog, but writing about it and standing up in front of a class of fifty students are two entirely different things. Despite the fact that I’m a teacher and have no issue standing in front of a classroom, this was completely different. I felt exposed. Nervous I’d be judged. Concerned that I would cry and be vulnerable in a room full of strangers.
But I also felt like I was doing something important. My story, I thought, could help these future social workers understand what living with depression and anxiety is like. Maybe I could help them better connect with a future client.
Or maybe I’d help someone in that class, someone undergoing their own struggles, feel a little less alone.
So I swallowed my apprehension and jumped into my story with two feet. I talked about my childhood, my family history of mental illness, my tendency to chase endorphins. I acknowledged that my “holy trinity” of medication, therapy and exercise helps me lead a productive and fulfilling life, but that depression is cyclical and I go through periods that are challenging, and sometimes terrible. I talked about last January, possibly the most difficult time in my life, when I had trouble getting out of bed and finding the incentive to do anything at all; when my days were marked by crying and a desperation to feel better – but having no motivation to take the steps to get there.
Eventually, I did get out of that terrible place. thanks in no small part to an amazing support system – my small team of cheerleaders and ass-kickers who propped me up and pushed me to get the care I needed.
But I’m fortunate that I’m surrounded by people who “get” me. Who understand mental illness. Most people aren’t that lucky.
For a while, my Facebook news feed was abound with statuses asking people to “copy and paste” to show their awareness and support for loved ones struggling with mental illness. As I told the McGill students, support is huge. Being able to reach out and talk to someone about how you’re feeling is the first step in getting better. But there’s still so much discomfort talking about mental illness that far too many people suffer silently.
It’s one thing to share a Facebook status that declares you’re aware and supportive. It’s another to actively engage in the discussion. To really understand and empathize.
So how do we get to that place? Where talking about mental illness is comfortable; where we can take the conversation off of our Facebook walls and into the real world?
As fellow Wise Women Canada blogger, Jonathan Levitt, asserted in his own status update, “The world knows people suffer from different forms of mental illness. It’s not awareness we need. I think it’s ownership. If you want to impress me, raise your hand and say I suffer. That’s how we break the stigma.”
And I think he has an excellent point. It’s 2015. We all know about mental illness. But in order to get comfortable with the discussion, I believe that those of us who struggle need to talk about it. We need to normalize mental illness by owning it, just as we would if we suffered from diabetes or thyroid disease.
The more we raise our voices and tell the world we’re here, the more likely we are to break the stigma, to end the silence and start the real conversation.
Maybe, as Jonathan has also suggested, we need to open up our medicine cabinets and share how we personally deal with our own mental illness. It’s not enough to just stand at the outer limits of the circle and nod your head. Raise your hand and admit that you or someone in your life suffers.
I bet we’d all be pleasantly surprised at how much we have in common.
It wasn’t easy standing in front of that classroom, sharing my story, exposing myself and my vulnerability. But it felt good to raise my hand and shine some light on the darkness. Maybe you can think about doing the same.