Snippet from Happiful Magazine, January 2020 Edition

In the winter of 2017 I returned to one of my favorite cities in Nicaragua. While there, I met many more important and influential people which forged the beginning of my ever evolving and growing global network of support. One of these women reached out to me in October and asked me one of my favorite double edged questions: How are you doing? Without missing a beat, she told me that the mental health magazine that she works for, Happiful, was looking to cover people’s experiences with mental health around the globe. I got in touch with her colleague and from there I answered a list of questions probing what the Canadian experience has been for me thus far. I’m honored to say that snippets of my dialogue appeared in their January 2020 edition. So I have decided to share everything that couldn’t fit into my mini feature.

What is your experience with mental health?

“There is nothing in life that is so bad that you should ever feel the need to end it. If you need help, we can help you. Your father and I have experience, we are older, and have lived our lives”. I grew up hearing this simple mantra from my mother repeatedly before I ever consciously experienced any mental health barriers and consequently understood the depth of this statement.

As an adult I now understand that as a child I had anxiety issues directly linked to ADD but I didn’t label them as such growing up. I thought feelings of nervousness that emerged seemingly without warning and rarely went away were simply a part of life. Then in my adolescence there were more instances of my peers experiencing negative changes in overall attitude and mood. 

That was normal and to be expected with hormonal fluctuations, but in some cases these changes escalated into more chronic disorders like anxiety and depression. From there began my understanding that negative emotions were not always triggered by specific events, and that they could become a perpetual state of mind, increasingly more difficult to recognize, control, and change.

In early adulthood I experienced my first major depressive episodes while travelling abroad. Even then with my education in sociology and consequently parts of psychology, I still found it near impossible to realize that my psyche was changing in ways that were a danger to myself.

Since exiting that episode, I’ve made proactive lifestyle changes, taken more initiative to understand my own mental health by addressing patterns, trauma, and triggers, and also sought medical help. It was intimidating to speak to professionals about something so personal as not feeling right in my own mind. In general it’s frightening to admit to yourself let alone others that something is “wrong” and that you don’t know how to fix it. 

After taking control of my mental health, I began to notice the truth in another one of my mothers mantras: “There is no such thing as normal”. After moving to Toronto, the most multicultural city on Earth, in 2018 I came into frequent contact with the homeless society. Up until that point I truly believed I had grasped all major components of mental health and let go of subconscious judgements. It wasn’t until I found myself withholding spare change that I realized I deemed homeless people with substance dependencies less deserving of money compared to the ones who appeared sober. Over time I realized that homelessness did not necessarily result from substance dependency and that in fact mental health problems were typically to blame. Drugs were rarely the root of the problem. They were the coping strategy. The most compelling part of this vicious cycle is that drug use fuels further risk of developing mental health issues in itself. Toronto not only exposed this fallacy but taught me that there is forever more to learn.

Everybody has challenges unique to themselves and they may look very different depending on the person evaluating those barriers. We all cope uniquely, and therefore require unique support.

When you speak about mental health to others in your community, how do they tend to react?

Reactions to mental health are very widespread based on my relationship to the person I’m speaking with, their generation, and their socioeconomic background because all of these things combined with life experience colour perception of mental health.

Although my close friends and family have been consistently supportive and open to discussing mental health, encouragement to seek professional help and medication was not common. I think this is due to lack of public understanding of when mental health issues cross the boundary from everyday highs and lows into serious conditions that need professional attention. So consequently they did not always recognize behavioural patterns as clues to exposing deeper issues at hand. 

 As for reactions in the workplace and from superiors over the past 5 years or so, I have had occasions where I attempted to discuss my issues or explain absenteeism with superiors. I still remember the shift I told my manager in tears that I had days where anxiety was so intense, I couldn’t leave the house. They patted me on the back and told me I was a “good person” and walked away. These insufficient, dismissive, insincere, and irrelevant responses are fairly typical regardless of the fact that I express that anxiety and depression are huge factors controlling my ability to handle everyday tasks. In the workplace, productivity and success is paramount and wellbeing is an ironic afterthought unless there is a serious tangible event attached to it like crisis or mental breaks. Not one single person besides myself is responsible for my welfare, but this disappointing reality formed my belief that Canada is still a generally unenlightened and reactive country in terms of fostering wellness.

What support is available to you?

In addition to friends and family, I was able to seek professional support and input from my walk-in clinic in 2018. It was a conversation I’d never had, with a doctor I’d never met, and I didn’t know where to start. To my complete surprise I almost avoided bringing up my issues with anxiety altogether but at the end of my appointment it all came rushing out, tears included. I expressed that I had trouble coping with my anxiety and it was making everyday life increasingly more difficult and exhausting. My doctor’s response immediately after I finished talking was along the lines of “You seem depressed” and after a few minutes I was prescribed antidepressants and told I would be put in contact with a free therapist. Despite the fact that the doctor was not my family doctor and it was a busy walk in clinic, I still feel the whole interaction was superficial, rushed, and unproductive. I felt no better leaving with my uncovered pay-out-of-pocket prescription, and it has gone mostly unused. The negative side effects combined with my own fear of becoming addicted to meds or my situation worsening because of them generated enough fear for me to abandon my initial prescription. In addition I was told wait times for referrals to clinics and therapists could be weeks. To my knowledge I never received a call. One year and 9 months later. I may be a typical Canadian because I can’t afford anything but a free therapist without coverage, but I am also different because at least I can afford the wait.

Also while I worked for Starbucks briefly in 2018, there was a helpline that employees had exclusive access to for telephone counselling. I called that number when I had a panic attack in June of that year. The woman I spoke with was a good listener who successfully probed my feelings enough for me to calm down. When I asked for what I truly needed which were concrete coping strategies and proactive measures, it seemed she was at a loss which left me unsatisfied. I was no longer sure why I called at all.

What is positive about the approach towards mental health in your country/community?

Positive changes I’ve noticed in Canadian culture and my generation have included the normalization of practicing spirituality through activities such as reflection, meditation or yoga. Naturopathic aids have also gained popularity and are usually used in addition to pharmaceutical ones. Regardless of my experiences I do believe Canadian citizens generally do encourage each other to lean on their social support networks.

Positive movements and groups reducing stigma and promoting community support, inclusivity, and tolerance emerged from Kids Help Phone (est. 1989), Bell Let’s Talk (est. 2010), Get Real (est. 2011), and of course #MeToo (ets. 2018). To me this is proof of a society sobering to the fact that mental health is largely responsible for overall health and must be treated with holistic seriousness.

Canadians on social media are also increasingly vocal about their own struggles and its become more common knowledge that recognizing poor mental health isn’t straight forward. To friends, it looks like cancelling plans last minute, and could instead be anxiety. To work it can look like inattention to detail, and actually be ADD. To family it seems like anger and distancing behaviour, but is in fact depression. On both ends of the spectrum, these behaviours and judgements are perceived uniquely by the observer even if they are not discussed as such. There are always possible hidden narratives.

None of these points of hope would be possible without free speech and democracy. Canadians are privileged to freely debate and vote on how society must improve without fear of serious negative legal and social repercussions.

What could be improved?

Although Canadians are more generally ready to talk about mental health, we still have a long way to go in terms of taking concrete action to tangibly improve it. We need more value and emphasis on mental health as a foundation for overall health and success so that we can stop behaving reactively and break vicious cycles. Too much money is going into treating the manifestations of poor mental health and not enough is going into educating and empowering citizens to understand how to be balanced.

These goals are attainable through beginning education on mental health early in life in order to solidify how to recognize, cope and treat mental unease with urgency as opposed to only treating mental issues once they become too debilitating to ignore.

As for the adult population, we need to practice empathy for ourselves and others. Outdated language that is popular among older generations needs to be refined in order to reduce stigma. Use of dehumanizing language like “bums”, “junkies”, or anything targeted at newer generations being quick to offend teaches us to devalue each other and discourage the transparency of vulnerability.

With more vulnerability we can confidently seek help, and better discern when professional intervention is necessary. Receiving holistic treatment must become so normalized that it is no longer seen as a luxury. That also means extending our basic health coverage because benefits in minimum wage or entry level Canadian jobs largely do not cover things like therapy, making seeking treatment expensive, competitive, and frustrating.

The Western world is experiencing a small paradigm shift. I strongly believe Canada has a cultural problem where individual success and self-sufficiency has been distorted into isolation. We expect absolute socioeconomic success without considering the mental implications. If we adjust our priorities and work with the momentum we already have, we can no doubt achieve a happier, healthier, and well rounded society.