Written by Step Above Stigma's Volunteer Coordinator, Lauren Gnat.
One of my favorite things about studying psychology is that I can positively and beneficially apply what I’m learning to my life. A concept I came to appreciate and apply to my own life was examining whether I approached new and/or challenging situations with a growth or fixed mindset.
If you’ve never heard these terms, I’ll to define them:
Fixed mindset → the belief that abilities (such as intelligence) are fixed, innate, static, and don’t change. People with this mindset believe that they are good at what they’re good at and avoid trying anything more challenging because they don’t believe they can go beyond their current abilities. They fear failure and criticism because they see it as a reflection of themselves, which hurts their self-esteem.
Growth mindset → the belief that with hard work, you can go beyond your current skills to grow and develop your abilities. People with this mindset embrace challenges because they see them as an opportunity to develop and grow. They push through obstacles, use criticism as feedback to improve, and know that each failure comes with a lesson.
Which mindset we have determines how we react to our successes. For example, when you get a good grade in a course, do you say it’s because I’m smart at this (fixed) or worked hard to get good at this (growth)?
Psychology researchers tested out these theories with children. They gave them an easy or hard puzzle and either rewarded them for their effort (growth mindset) or their ability (fixed mindset). The resulted showed that children who were rewarded for their effort not only felt confident in their puzzle making skills, but they were also motivated to do a harder one to continue growing their puzzle abilities. On the other hand, children who were praised for their ability only wanted to do the easy ones because they were afraid that they wouldn’t be good enough if they failed at the harder one. This is one of the many ways we can see a fixed mindset holding us back from challenging ourselves to grow and do more.
This principle of a growth mindset can be applied to so much more than just doing a puzzle. I thought I’d give some examples in my own life where a growth mindset either did or could have, benefited me:
1. Exercising → from a young age, I always thought of myself as lazy and one of those unathletic kids. This left me feeling unmotivated and embarrassed at the thought of working out. Regardless, I challenged my fixed mindset that said I couldn't do it, by starting to work out frequently over the December break of first year. Rather than seeing myself as “never being fit,” I viewed each work out as an opportunity to get stronger, build more muscles, and know that it would be easier the next time with every time I worked out. Now, rather than believing that I’ll never be able to run a marathon, I get that much stronger and just a bit better can build up over time.
2. Textbook readings → going into second year psychology, I never knew how many chapters of textbooks I’d have to read. I was terrified and worried that I could never do it all since I was a “slow reader.” However, I realized that with every chapter I read, I get a little faster, better at writing down my thoughts, and learning the new and important skill of note-taking. Now I am not only quicker at getting through the many chapters assigned to me each, but I am also much more confident in my ability to do them.
3. Volunteering → I volunteer for a telephone helpline, a texting helpline (for confidentiality purposes, I won’t say which ones), and the Peer Support Centre. When I started these, I was terrified that if I messed up, I would be a useless failure, and the person I was trying to help would feel worse. I didn’t see failure as an option; however, I learned quickly that I’m not immediately good at things I’ve never done before. It sounds shocking, but I soon realized it’s all about making mistakes, recognizing and learning from them, and then picking yourself back up and trying again. I always remember that I’m doing my best, giving it 100%, and getting better with each time.
4. Meeting new people → despite my seemingly calm and friendly persona, meeting new people can be terrifying for me. I sometimes worry that when I say one thing wrong, the people I’m around are immediately judging and dislike me. Eventually, I realized that is my fixed mindset holding me back from being true to myself. A fixed mindset would say I could never be myself around people because I will never make new friends again if I mess up. However, I adjusted my thinking because I realized I couldn't hold back who I am because of my fear of judgment. I like who I am, and like to be myself around people. Even if it takes time to get comfortable with people, I know I can get there, and each time I put myself out there, I am allowing myself to grow and meet great people and get to know me. Meeting so many more people and getting involved in many extracurriculars here at Queen's has reminded me that it doesn't matter how long it takes you to open up to people. Just make sure to be yourself and know that the right people for you will like who you are.
The message of a growth mindset is to reward yourself for every step of the process and use your experience to prove your doubts wrong. By that, I mean, think about times when you thought, "I can never do this" or "things will never get better," but eventually, you could do them, and things did get better. Remember that you were the one who accomplished your goals, got through that hard time, tried again after failing, and no one else did it for you. Persevering through our failures can help us realize that they're not as scary or catastrophic as we think, and we are strong enough to keep going. Thinking like this can help us because it reminds us to reward ourselves for our efforts, be compassionate to ourselves when we struggle, and open to using mistakes as learning experiences.
Written by Step Above Stigma's Chapter Coordinator, Haley Sturrock.
School can be overwhelming; I’m sure you have all felt that before. Feeling pressure from school and pushing yourself to do your best is healthy, it’s what you expected at University, but at what point does this become unhealthy? At what point are you allowing your mental health to deteriorate as a result of the pressures of your courses or your degree? This question can be answered differently for each student.
Personally, I know that I can get to a point where I am so preoccupied with being overwhelmed, that I can lose perspective of the bigger picture. I take care of my physical health by eating well, sleeping enough (well mostly) and exercising regularly. I also take advantage of some of the amazing resources Queen’s offers students. What I’d like to share today, however, are some tips and coping strategies that I’ve developed over my last two years of my undergrad.
Tip #1: Eliminate ‘school’ from ‘non-school’ times.
I find it challenging to relax sometimes even when I have chosen to take a break from school. I find it extremely hard to let go of school related stress, especially during times of the year when courses are picking up. To help with this, I have deleted the outlook app on my phone. This eliminates unwanted school interruptions like emails or OnQ notifications when I am not focusing on school work. Good-bye stress of being out with friends and getting an unwanted notification that ‘the due date is 2 days away’! I’m sure all Queen’s students have experienced that notification. I always knew I had that assignment due, and had allotted time to finish it, but getting that notification made me feel like I should be working on it at that moment.
Another strategy that I find helpful, is to agree not to talk about school for the night when I am with my friends. Occasionally there are times when it’s important to talk with your friends about your courses, or rant about the amount of work you have to do, but choosing to have discussions about anything but school can be quite refreshing and allow you to truly enjoy the company of your friends.
Tip #2: Know what works for you.
Knowing what works for you and how you will have the most productive day can help minimize stress. During mid-term and exam season, I know I need to plan my days to get the most work done possible. I have a general routine that has proven time and again to work for me. My most productive day looks like this: I have a large study block from around 8am-2pm with small breaks in between. After 2, or when I start to feel drained, I take a long break to go to the gym or go for a run outside, take a shower and eat dinner. By this time, I generally feel refreshed and am ready to do some more work. Knowing how you can perform optimally can help you plan and feel slightly less overwhelmed. Everyone has a different routine that works for them so try new strategies and test out what works best!
Tip #3: Decide when you are going to study, and when you are not.
Defining dedicated study times and dedicated down times is critical to creating balance in your life and alleviating the feeling of being overwhelmed. Those periods in your day when you are kind of working, kind of not, consume a lot of energy. Try to eliminate these unproductive periods in your day. I like to have very distinct times when I am not focusing on school, whether this be a dinner with friends or a simple study break in the day to watch some Netflix. Removing yourself fully from your school work can allow you to take the break you need and mentally give yourself room to breathe. If you are having one of those mornings where you are sitting at your laptop for hours and not really getting anything done, make the decision to take the morning off. Go do something you enjoy or get some extra rest if you need it. Spending mental energy trying to get yourself to study when you really just aren’t being productive does not help you in the long term. Most often when this happens you feel like you can’t waste any time in your day because you have so much to do, but remember, sitting at your laptop not getting any work done is actually worse for you than taking a break.
Learning to manage the stress we experience at school is important to our mental health as well as our academic achievement. Each of us is unique in how we study, how we handle stress and what strategies will help us along the way. It takes time to figure out what works for you and to be disciplined enough to incorporate them on a regular basis.
As a final thought, I try to remember that there is so much more to my time at Queen’s than the exact courses I am in and the grades I receive. When you are in times of stress, exhaustion, and frustration, remember who you are and why you are here. I am no expert on this, but I am working on it. Academics are important but are not everything, especially as we begin our 2020/2021 school year online, keep tabs on your mental health and the health of those around you. Work hard and set goals but allow yourself to take a step back when you need to and never lose perception of the bigger picture.
Written by Step Above Stigma's Treasurer, Laura Pickering.
Growing up I was always skinny and was told this hundreds of times. People would grab my wrist to measure how small it was or put their forearm against my thigh to show how small it was. These acts made me so uncomfortable and I quickly became aware of how much smaller I was than everyone else. I was constantly told that I was too skinny and that I needed to just "eat a burger". By some I was praised for being so small and by others I was told I needed to gain weight to look better. After my weight being pointed out so many times, being skinny became a huge part of my identity. Having other people engage in checking behaviours on me since as early as I can remember later developed into my own checking habits. As I got older I would place my hands around my waist to ensure it was small enough and measure the size of my wrists, legs, and arms with my hands to ensure they were all still "small enough".
My doctors couldn’t figure out why I struggled to gain weight until I finally got the diagnosis of celiac disease. I was not prepared for the weight gain that came with going gluten free and my sense of self came crumbling down as I no longer knew who I was without being skinny. I began hating this change which led to food restriction and overexercising.
I did not have the typical eating disorder story because I didn’t lose a large amount of weight like most others do. Since I was always skinny no one knew I was suffering from an ED (eating disorder). I began restricting my food intake and working out for 3 hours a day. Soon I lost 5lbs and became obsessed with losing more. I just wanted to be skinnier. I would run my hand over my collar bone and feel my ribs to make sure they stuck out enough. I was obsessed with seeing my bones pop out and if they didn't pop out enough I restricted even more. Since I was already underweight to begin with, losing those 5 pounds was enough for my body to start shutting down. My heart was working so incredibly hard trying to keep me alive but it was struggling. My body fought hard and it came very close but didn’t give up on me. I had given up on me but my body kept going.
I just wanted to be "skinny enough" but that never came. I was 80lbs, body shutting down, and I still wasn’t skinny enough. The funny thing about eating disorders is we become obsessed with getting skinnier and having that perfect body yet even if/when we reach that body it’s not good enough. It is the constant pursuit of something better when actually we are making ourselves sicker and sicker.
It wasn’t until later when I realized how close to death I actually was that my whole world changed. Everything changes inside of you when you’re told you were about a month away from death with no medical intervention. It’s crazy how I was so close to losing it all. Anorexia so easily could’ve taken my life away. Had it won I wouldn’t have graduated high school or gone to university or met all the amazing people who have come into my life in the last two years.
I also suffered from anxiety for my whole life. As a young child I was rarely able to attend friend’s birthday parties or go on playdates without my mom. I was riddled with anxiety but was terrified by this feeling because I didn't know what it was or why it was happening. It progressively got worse as the years went on until it peaked in grade 9. At this time, I couldn’t keep food down, I was in a constant state of panic and was constantly terrified that something bad was going to happen. My panic attacks began in grade 9 as well after a traumatic event. In high school, my anxiety got so out of control that I was having daily panic attacks, could barely leave the house and had an extremely high level of anxiety for no reason. The thought of stepping out of my front door was enough to send me into a full blown panic attack.
For years I had a constant battle going on inside my head. I never felt safe, everything gave me debilitating anxiety and I just wanted to jump out of my skin to have one minute of true relaxation. My OCD was also incredibly debilitating and I would spend hours every day checking all the doors and windows in my house, checking under my bed and behind the shower curtain to make sure no one was hiding there. This checking routine lasted at least 2 hours a day and continued for years.
I finally began on the road to recovery and I was able to overcome suicidal depression, debilitating anxiety disorders that made me unable to leave the house, and crippling OCD and panic attacks that made me feel like I just wanted to end it all. When anorexia came along I knew it was just one more thing I had to battle.
All this to say I went from that to where I am now. My mental illnesses used to consume my thoughts 24/7. All I could think about was how I was going to survive another minute. Now I’m at the place where I don't have to take it one day at a time and I'm no longer just trying to survive. I’m enjoying life and getting the most out of it because I now realize I could have lost that chance. I have a duty to live a happy and fulfilling life to prove to myself and everyone else that you can make it through anything and be happy. No matter what you go through you can turn it around and that’s not to say you won’t still struggle every day because I definitely do but the struggle is so worth it with everything else I now get out of my life.
I will never stop fighting for myself and for everyone else struggling with an eating disorder or any other mental illness. I went from a suicidal girl who was so afraid of the world that I couldn’t leave the house or interact with anyone to a strong and confident woman who went away for university, made amazing friends and now is a functioning person living a semi-normal life. With determination I survived. Everything that’s happened to me has made me the person I am today and for that I am so grateful. I wouldn’t trade my life for the world. I had so many opportunities to give up but if I had I wouldn’t be here living my life that is now so worth living. It’s still a daily battle but I choose to wake up every day and fight. I am stronger than any diagnosis or person who traumatized me and I am going to win in spite of all this.
In life you always have two options: to keep going or give up. Giving up always seems like the easiest option but you MUST keep going. Keep fighting every single day and eventually it will get better.
I know it feels like anything could break you but nothing in life will break you if you don’t let it. The second you let yourself break you have chosen to give up on yourself. I know it’s so hard but waking up every day and choosing to keep on fighting no matter how hard it is WILL allow you to begin creating the life you want and deserve. At the end of the day you can’t control what happens to you but you can control how you respond to it. You can choose to feel sorry for yourself and be miserable or you can work through it and live a fulfilling life.
Written by Step Above Stigma's SASIP Coordinator, Ghazal Khademi.
I have little recollection of learning about eating disorders from when I was growing up, which became problematic later on in my life, where I began developing unhealthy habits that I couldn’t recognize as the start of an ED. This would turn into something far more serious in the years to come. Experiencing being picked on about my size at a young age is what brought on various styles of extremely unhealthy habits that no one at any age should have to deal with, but these comments pushed me to a low point where I hated myself and was disgusted by the way I looked, even though the reality of it was that I was at a healthy weight and size for my age at the time.
My experiences with strict calorie-counting, over-exercising, and constantly searching for a quick solution to fit a beauty standard that I was so desperate to meet, only made me more self-conscious about the way I looked, and this only helped kick-start my body dysmorphia and eating disorders. Though I was increasingly active throughout high school, hiding what I was going through started to take a toll on me, where I felt like I was digging myself into a deeper hole with every single decision that I made on a day to day basis. Not only did I struggle to talk to others about what I was experiencing, but I made myself believe that I was okay, and that an ED was nothing to worry about.
At one point in my life, I felt myself deteriorating rapidly and I started to hit my lowest point. I started to notice my symptoms more and more, where I also began experiencing symptoms of other mental illnesses. At that point, I gave myself a wake-up call, and I then decided that I needed to open up about what I had been going through. The biggest obstacle in my experiences has been opening up to those I love, because everyone’s experiences are personal, and no one wants to put themselves in an incredibly vulnerable position, only to end up even more self-conscious should they be judged by others. But as hard as it was to open up, the support that I received from the few close friends whom I spoke to felt so comforting, and having people there for me at what felt like my lowest point was what I needed to prove to myself that I would be okay.
This took a huge weight off my shoulders and pushed me on my journey to recovery. But recovery and progress aren’t always sunshine and rainbows. There are so many ups and downs, and this is completely normal, but this was a tough pill for me to swallow. To me, a relapse or a “bad day” was me being weak and giving up on myself, but that’s not true. Accepting this was one of the most important steps in my recovery, as I forgave myself for my actions, rather than continue to self-deprecate, until the periods between relapses slowly grew more and more.
After high school and going into university (now entering my third year), I’ve significantly grown into a better version of myself – and continuing to grow, while learning many important lessons along the way, that I’d hope to keep with me for the rest of my life. I’ve learnt a lot about who I am, the difference between positive versus deprecating actions or choices, and finally, how to maintain my mental health with some simple steps I can take (that personally cater to me), in order to improve my state of mind. I’ve included a shortened list of some of my personally favourite self-care tips below;
1. Who am I at my best?
Something that’s been helpful to me is writing down descriptions of who I am at my best and looking back on them every once in a while, to remind myself of why I noted these descriptions in the first place. At my best, I’m doing the things I love, surrounded by the people I love, and I am happy. Of course, this can vary from one individual to another, but it always helps to be reminded of what you’re like when you’re at your best, especially if you feel you might be doubting yourself and what you’re capable of.
2. Creating and making use of a personalized self-care toolkit.
An effective way for me to calm down and bounce back from negative emotions or heightened symptoms relating to anxiety has been creating a self-care toolkit, by gathering different things from each of the categories of the five senses; seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, tasting. For instance, some of the things that my own self-care toolkit consists of are a favourite snack, playing some music, smelling something (like basil, plants, candles), looking at a collection of pictures of my friends and family, and feeling a cozy blanket or carpet. This has been a trusty method for me, as it’s helped to ground me at times where I experience negative voices or thoughts in my head.
3. Creating mental health goals for myself.
Another method of self-care for me has been writing down some of my long-term and short-term goals (related to my mental health) in a journal and keeping it up to date. I have goals written for each week, month, the semester, and sometimes even for the year, and each of these goals are written down appropriately to correlate with the expectation of the goals. Some of my short term goals in the past have included going on a walk once a day, and working out most days of the week, while a more long-term goal could be to stay hydrated and eat well (eating intuitively is important, and for me, that doesn’t necessarily have to be eating healthy 24/7).
Ultimately, the journey of progress and getting to recovery is one that will not always be linear, and that’s okay. It’s okay to mess up. It’s okay to have to start over from square one. That doesn’t make me less worthy, and it doesn’t make me any less of a person. My experiences don’t define me, but they are a part of who I am today, and I have to continue to have compassion for myself, regardless of what anyone else may think. As cheesy as it sounds, there are always bumps in the road, and life comes with lots of ups and downs, but we should appreciate all of it. At the end of the day, we live one life, and we should all love the skin that we’re in, unapologetically, no matter the shape or size.
Written by Step Above Stigma's SASIP Coordinator, Delaney-Rose Hunsdale.
In 1977, the World Health Organization (WHO) introduced the movement called “Health For All by the Year 2000”. In this movement WHO proposed that every person should achieve a level of health in all aspects of life, including medically, mentally, socially, and economically. Health For All (inclusive of mental health) is something I firmly believe in and wish to see achieved, however, there is still much to be done. In Canada, and many other countries, there are mental health inequities which create disparities in mental illness and overall mental well-being amongst populations. In this post I am going to breakdown my understanding of what mental health inequity is, factors that contribute to it, and ways to narrow the gap.
The words inequality and inequity are often used interchangeably, yet they do not have the same meaning. Equality is to treat everyone the same, whereas equity is to treat everyone fairly. I used to get confused as to how treating people equally and treating people fairly meant different things until I put it into context. In terms of health, treating people equally would mean to give everyone the same type and amount of resources, whereas treating people equitably would mean to ensure every individual is given the appropriate amount of resources they need to achieve health. Through an equitable way of thinking, it does not matter that person A needs more resources than person B, because they both were able to achieve the same goal, thus they were treated fair, not equal.
Mental health is a complex issue that can be impacted through individual, social, and environmental influences. Mental health inequities come into play when there are unfair differences in the quality of and access to mental health resources amongst populations. These unfair differences can be connected to the social determinants of health. According to WHO “the social determinants of health [and therefore mental health] are conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age”. Some conditions can advantage us, whereas other conditions can disadvantage us. These many conditions, such as employment, race, housing, gender, and socioeconomic status, all accumulate advantageously or disadvantageously, and interconnect to create our lived experiences. Unfortunately, your disadvantaged conditions accumulate, the more likely you are to experience mental health inequities. For example, a significant predictor of mental well-being is socioeconomic status, wherein the lower your socioeconomic status, the poorer your mental health, and the higher your socioeconomic status, the better your mental health is. This is partly because of the cost of mental health services, where nearly 1/3 is paid out of pocket by Canadians. Only those that can afford mental health care can receive it in a timely manner.
So what can be done about these disparities? We will never all be born, grow, live, work, and age in identical conditions, nor will we all make the same individual choices, therefore, inequalities are uncontrollable and will likely always exist, however, as previously stated we don’t need to treat people equally, we need to treat people fairly. For mental health access and resources, this could take the form of proportionate universalism, which essentially means ensuring everyone is given resources, but the amount they are given is proportionate to the amount they need. We may be far past the year 2000, but it is not inconceivable to want to achieve health for all. As a mental health advocate, and a passionate supporter of mental health equity, I do not believe health for all can be achieved until we start treating people fairly, but not equally.
https://cmha.ca/ending-health-care-disparity-canada https://www.nwhu.on.ca/ourservices/Pages/Equity-vs-Equality.aspx https://www.who.int/social_determinants/sdh_definition/en/ https://deadwildroses.com/2020/06/08/thoughts-on-inequality-and-justice/ Kastrup MC. Inequity in mental health: An issue of increasing public health concern. World Soc Psychiatry 2019;1:36-8. Jessica Allen, Reuben Balfour, Ruth Bell & Michael Marmot (2014) Social determinants of mental health, International Review of Psychiatry, 26:4, 392-407
Written by Step Above Stigma's Vice President of Community Outreach, Solana Pasqual.
“Don’t apologize… Don’t perform likability… Performing likability makes women diminish themselves; it means that you’re often not able to reach your potential because you’re not letting yourself really be yourself.” -Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Being a chronic people pleaser, I have spent my entire life trying to perfect the art of getting people to like me. And I know I’m not alone. Most of us are really good at glossing over the parts of ourselves that make us complicated. Being likeable makes us feel good. It makes us feel like we belong, that we are not alone because we have something inside us that resonates with everyone. It’s a wonderful thing to be liked.
But it’s not always the best thing.
In January, I went through a really tough time in my life mentally, and I could not muster the energy to like myself, let alone ask someone else to like me. It was a really lonely time of my life, and I felt like an outsider. I felt like a failure for not being able to pretend. I knew how… so why couldn’t I do it?
I don’t believe that every hard time in our lives needs to have a silver lining. Sometimes, things happen and they suck. January sucked. February sucked. March sucked. But because of all that disappointment and frustration, I was forced to be a less than likeable person. Not unlovable. Not unrespectable. Just… unlikeable.
I was forced to realize that I didn’t have to be likeable. I could be nuanced, and complicated, and irritating, and unfriendly if that was what I was feeling in that moment. I didn’t have to smile at strangers, or laugh at jokes I didn’t find funny, or stay in conversations that I didn’t want to be in. Being less than likeable made me lose out on potential friendships, it made people not like me, and it made me feel like I was doing something wrong. But it also made me stand up for myself, and for other women.
I now realize that what I demand from myself- a likeability personalized for everyone I meet- I also unconsciously demand from others, especially other womxn. When I allow myself to say no, to be inflexible, to be a party pooper, I begin to allow the same from other womxn instead of judging them.
And I want to add a little disclaimer to what I consider likeability. When I say likeability, I am not talking about the basic respect and consideration that I think we should all try and treat one another with. I’m talking about aspects of our personalities that we either suppress or enhance in order to get people to like us, to think we’re cool, to want to hang around us. Likeability for me means not asserting myself when I know I have something to offer just because I don’t want to seem braggadocios. For me, it means saying yes to plans that I don’t want to go to, and laughing when I’m uncomfortable.
We need to stop demanding likeability from ourselves and from every womxn we meet. If we express frustration and anger, there’s nothing wrong with us. If we’re having a bad day and don’t want to be friendly, there’s nothing wrong with us. If we make mistakes and say the wrong things, there’s nothing wrong with us.
Everyone, and especially womxn, have been trained to believe that if someone doesn’t like us, that means that there is something wrong within ourselves. We are taught, and we teach, that if we can fix ourselves, we should. We somehow think that we can become the perfect person, no matter whether than person can actually exist. And we unconsciously ask that of others as well.
I sometimes fine myself judging other womxn because I don’t like them. With their unlikeability, they are destroying what I think I am entitled to- friendliness, hospitality, softness. Why do I demand this from them, and why do I demand this from myself?
Partly, it’s because I think that if I can perform and be likeable even if I don’t feel like it, why can’t others perform for me? That entitlement dissipated when I lost the ability to be likeable for a moment. I realized that I could either hate myself for not pretending to be likeable, or I could forgive and embrace my humanity.
On some days, I choose the first option because it’s easier and it is what I am comfortable with. But on most days, I try and choose the second because I know that I don’t have to be likeable to be lovable, a good friend, and a badass.
When I stop being likeable, it feels like I am stopping something with potential. It feels like I am dropping a very exciting career of becoming a perfect person, and trading it for a hat labelled “unpleasant.” I’m sure I’m not alone in my feeling. Most people I meet have higher expectations of themselves than others because we do not grant ourselves the benefit of the doubt. We do not grant ourselves love. But I am here to say that we are all unlikeable in certain ways, and that unlikability allows us to stop pretending and wasting our time with people, things, and opportunities that are incompatible to our true selves.
When I stop sugar coating things, when I stop saying please after every sentence, and when I start standing up for myself, I become closer to the people around me. I feel like I have the freedom to be myself because, here I was being unlikeable, and yet, my people stick around. And they love me. And I love me.
So, if you find yourself trying to reach an impossible standard, ask yourself: do I love the people in my life because they are perfect?
If it’s a yes, get to know your people more. And if it’s a no, forgive yourself for falling short of your expectations.
And forgive others for doing the same.
Written by Step Above Stigma's Vice President of Community Outreach, Monique Botros.
It’s an all too simple contrast of white to red, but just a glance is enough to create a powerful moment of discomfort, maybe you sat up, or maybe you checked the author of this post and questioned their audacity. All legitimate responses— and at no fault of your own. That is, society has taught you that menstruation is too taboo to be talked about, let alone be looked at. Because even as half of the population menstruates, and the whole population owes their existence to its intricacies, it’s mention is enough to break every decree of social etiquette.
Now when we think of menstruation, we often think of the characteristic bout of premenstrual syndrome (PMS)—that is the time preceding your period. Bloating, headaches, and muscle pain are all popularized symptoms of a women experiencing “that time of the month.” But the process of PMS and menstruation is much more intricate than a bad day— it’s these hormonal imbalances that often keep the female/AFAB body in check.
And while everyone expects to be bloated, sick, or tired, what is rarely discussed is what severity is considered “normal”? The issue is that the standard of what is “normal” becomes all too difficult for the female to define— how can you know what normal is if you’ve never talked about it, if there’s no standard of normalcy to compare it to? It’s estimated that 1 in 1000 women have a menstrual bleeding disorder but don’t know (1). These are women that are experiencing bouts of extended menstruation, impeding their ability to experience life, but they’re doing so isolated, convincing themselves that “this is life.”
Other physical symptoms— from the undiscussed discomfort of periods, and sleeping difficulties, can be a transformative moment for self-esteem and confidence (2).
The mental retaliation of PMS is rather popularized, from moodiness, to symptoms of depression and anxiety—they’ve long been a form of comical reprieve. A woman isn’t upset— she’s “hormonal” or “PMSing.” What many fail to realize is that PMS is a medically recognized condition— and it affects up to 40% of women/AFAB. The comedic outlook often pushed surrounding PMSing devalues their emotions and discounts women as being “crazy.”
A further estimated 1 in 20 menstruating women, suffer from more than just PMS, but rather bouts of premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), a severe, disabling extension of PMS (2). Women with PMDD generally have emotional and behavioural symptoms, from sadness, anxiety, haplessness, to extreme moodiness, and irritability (2). Suicide is one of the ten leading causes of death among reproductive age women/AFAB, and it’s estimated that 30% of women with PMDD will attempt suicide in their lifetime or experience suicidal thoughts and self-harm (3).
There is no denial that there is a direct link between a female’s reproductive health and risk for mental illness— and yet, the extreme stigma surrounding discussion means that women’s reproductive support services and mental health are extremely lacking (3). And thus, even with the continual revolution of women’s rights— the debilitating social suffocation that accompanies the topic of menstruation is harming female/AFAB wellness every day. The white to red contrast shouldn’t be taboo, it should be revered as one of biology’s greatest feats.
1. https://letstalkperiod.ca/ 2. https://www.talkspace.com/blog/periods-pmdd-mental-health/?utm_content=%5B%5Bat106140_a161307_m12_p12460_cCA%5D%5D&siteID=a1LgFw09t88-bU7d8lpmSEjt8.XHyrn1aQ&ranMID=41986&ranEAID=a1LgFw09t88&ranSiteID=a1LgFw09t88-bU7d8lpmSEjt8.XHyrn1aQ&LSNSUBSITE=Omitted_a1LgFw09t88&utm_source=adgoal.net&utm_campaign=Affiliate_Linkshare&utm_keyword=10&utr_adgroup=2126220&utr_adid=1&utm_medium=affiliate 3. https://iapmd.org/facts-and-figures
This seventh edition of Featured Advocates Month blog posts is written by Rika Wong. After beginning her Bachelor of Science in Psychology at Queen’s University back in 2016, Rika switched into the Accelerated Standing Track nursing program in 2018. She is soon to be graduating with her Bachelor of Nursing Science degree this fall. Rika has been a proud supporter of Step Above Stigma and its initiatives since 2017.
I was 17 years old when I chose to move across the country and begin my undergraduate degree at Queen’s University. Like many of those starting first year, I was excited to meet new friends and eager for a new level of independence of now being on my own. In high school, I got good grades, played sports, and had a great group of friends. Looking back, it’s safe to say that my 17-year-old self was naive to the reality of balancing school, extracurriculars, as well as a social life. Of all the things I learned throughout my four years in university, however, the importance of mental health was one of my most valuable lessons. There is trial and error in finding the approach that best supports you and your mental health journey. It’s a complex and lifelong process that, at times, feels like you’re taking one step forwards and two steps back. As I close this particular chapter of my life as a, now, 21-year-old, I reflect on a couple of my biggest takeaways that I wished I would have known as my 17-year-old self.
Firstly, it’s okay to say “no”. As a first-year, I was eager to get involved in clubs and sports and the possibilities to do so seemed endless. I was keen and motivated, but so were the hundreds of other incoming students I was surrounded with. It easily led me to being overcommitted and burnt out, which really impacted my mental health throughout university. As a university student, there can be immense pressure to get involved in an extensive list of clubs, maintain good grades, while getting 8-hours of sleep. It was easy to fall in the trap of comparing myself to my peers and thinking that I also had to add on another initiative or hobby to my plate. What I learned was the importance of dedicating time to checking in with myself and recharging so that I could be present for the commitments I did choose to take part in. Saying “no” to certain opportunities can be challenging, and is still something I struggle with from time to time, but it has become apparent to me that in order to be able to give my 100% to school, friends, and extracurriculars, I needed to ensure that I was investing in my own well-being first.
Secondly, you are your biggest advocate when it comes to your mental health. Whether it’s you, a close friend, or an acquaintance, everyone faces their own challenges with their mental health. In an environment where there is great pressure to balance school, extracurriculars, and relationships, it can be easy to overlook the struggles that others are facing. As university students, we feel the need to follow a routine of going to class, studying in the library, and hanging out with friends, all while silently dealing with stress, anxiety, depression and more. While facing the challenges of my own mental health and also seeing my close friends also experienced their own unique struggles helped me to realize that at the end of the day, while we can look to our friends and family for support, we owe it to ourselves to be our own biggest advocate. We must know our limits, set boundaries, and build healthy habits. Whether it’s reaching out to a therapist or reevaluating your priorities, the steps you take start by recognizing the importance behind prioritizing your own mental health.
This sixth edition of Featured Advocates Month blog posts is written by Haley Forgacs. Haley is a third year student studying English and History at Queen’s University, and is a volunteer for Step Above Stigma.
Mental illness has never been an entirely foreign concept to me. I grew up with family members
and friends who suffer from mental illnesses such as anxiety, OCD and schizophrenia. From a
fairly young age I had an awareness and a somewhat normalized idea of mental illness. I
believed that I had a decent understanding of what mental illness is and how it affects the mind
and body. It wasn’t until I suffered from depression myself that I realized how little I really knew
about mental health and the pervasive stigma around mental illness. I realized that no matter
how much you read about mental illness and no matter how many people around you have
experienced it, you will never be able to fully comprehend the all-encompassing nature of
mental illness until you experience it for yourself. Though my depression had begun chipping
away at me months earlier, it wasn’t until this past winter that I experienced it to a debilitating
degree. I struggled to get out of bed in the mornings and stopped eating all together. I couldn’t
concentrate on my classes or my readings and quickly fell behind. Despite my familiarity with
mental illness, I wasn’t able recognize or identify the warning signs that my own mental health
Mental health pertains to everyone, regardless of whether you are predisposed to mental
illness or not. Each one of us has a responsibility to take care of ourselves and be aware of our
limits. I think that removing the stigma around mental illness starts with a more open
conversation of mental wellness in general. How can we possibly recognize signs that our
mental health is slipping if we don’t discuss what mental health and mental wellbeing really
are? Changes in sleep and appetite, a loss of energy and focus, and even unexplained physical
aches and pains are all indications that you have to revaluate your mental wellness and make
adjustments to your lifestyle. If we start talking openly about our mental wellbeing, I believe an
open conversation around mental illness will follow. I’ve been a student at Queen’s for two
years now and many of the friends I’ve met have experienced some sort of mental health
problem in their lives or know of someone who has. There’ve been times when the people I
least expected have confessed to me their own experience with mental illness, which led me to
wonder: why are we all going through this alone? According to Statistics Canada, it is estimated
that 1 in 5 Canadians suffer from a mental health problem or illness. By the age of 40,
approximately 50% of the population will have been directly affected by mental illness. Despite
these numbers, stigma still prevails regarding mental health and seeking help. It’s ironic that
while so many feel they are alone in their fight for mental wellness, a significant number of the
population are experiencing the same thing to varying degrees.
An estimated 15.5% of Canadians suffer from fractured bones a year, while 17.8% suffer from
mental illness. Yet, nobody denies that a broken bone is in need of medical attention. People
with broken bones typically don’t try to hide it from the people around them out of fear of
being judged. Nobody calls a person using crutches ‘lazy’ or tells them to simply get over it. If
we truly want to eradicate the stigma around mental illness, we need to have more truthful and
unbridled conversations. Ultimately, we need to make a conscious effort to check in with
ourselves and with those around us. The more we openly discuss our experiences, the more
people will be aware of their own mental health and feel permission to ask for help when
This fifth edition of Featured Advocates Month blog posts is written by AJ Jackson. AJ is a recent high school graduate heading to Holland College in PEI to pursue her passion in the Primary Care Paramedic program. AJ is a determined and active supporter of mental health. She joined Step Above Stigma this spring as a volunteer. She is also a volunteer for the Nova Scotia based non-profit organization called Pics 4 Passion as a mental health advocate.
In 2015, I was exposed to a very negative friendship. There was a girl who came into my life from an abusive and unhealthy background. She was a kind and extremely talented girl but struggling mentally far beyond my comprehension. I looked up to her, her stories were things I had only heard about or seen in movies. I heard things that absolutely broke my heart and I knew from very early in our friendship that it was going to be a challenge to cope and support her. Over time I learned more and was exposed to many traumatic stories and experiences that she had shared with me. I wanted to be there for her and it blinded me to the fact that it was taking a toll on my own mental state.
One afternoon in the summer we were hanging out and decided to go for a swim, little did I know what I was walking into. This was the first time I was personally exposed to self harm. This young woman had scars all over her body and looking back my heart breaks that she struggled so much. I was naive, so when she explained that she used self harm as a coping mechanism for the challenging things in life, it didn’t occur to me the severity and health concerns that went along with this particular coping mechanism. As time passed and even after the friendship had come to an end I still found myself struggling with the pain and trauma she had endured. I found myself dwelling and fixating on the negative aspects of the friendship and my mood changing.
About a year later, I found myself in a toxic relationship of my own. There was this guy who I had been friends with for some time and I was so excited when feelings developed, my first boyfriend, I was all grown up now. I was in my rebellious stage, trying to grow up too fast and have independence but I can honestly say it did not go as I had imagined. The guy I was talking to had severe mental health issues and did not have the knowledge or support needed to cope with them properly or in a healthy manner. About a month into this relationship things swiftly started to go downhill. His mental state was decreasing and was having a very strong effect on his actions and words towards me. It was hard for me in a sense because I remember seeing red flags from time to time but I was so convinced that I could make it work and that one day we would be happy, as you can imagine I was painfully misguided. Things escalated when he went through a challenging experience and that evening I had found myself in a place where he had convinced me that if I didn’t stay with him then he would hurt himself. I felt completely responsible for his happiness and well-being. This proceeded and the situation escalated greatly over a few months which was incredibly damaging to my own mental health. His behaviour and the situation was having severe effects on every other aspect of my life. My family and those who were close to me could see me changing long before I could, as I feel happens for many.
Now having shared these things I want to explain why these were key to getting to where I am and becoming the person I am today. Both of these people came into my life even before I was 16. These things were huge for me and play a key role in what I am sharing with you today. During and after these events, I repeatedly found myself in situations where I was overwhelmed and struggling with supporting and listening to the ones I love. It took me a while to realize that I was taking their struggles and hurt on as my own. Part of me believed that if I took on their pain and their sadness that it would ease the burden for them but unfortunately that was often not the case. My health and well-being was taking an enormous toll and I slowly began to realize that I was worsening the situation along with causing myself pain and hurting my own self worth by doing this. Even though I thought I was doing what was right and doing it out of love I was taking the unhealthy approach to being supportive.
Over time and with no shortage of struggle and practice, I began to learn how to separate myself from the situations enough that I was able to support the ones I love without taking fault or placing others burdens on myself. Having said that when the people I care for are struggling it still breaks my heart and it never gets easier to watch loved ones in pain but you can learn not to take on their burdens and still empathise with their pain. For me personally this was not an easy skill to obtain and I am still not where I would like or need to be. But I have learned things during this process that I will carry with me through the rest of my life which in a way makes me grateful for the negative situations I experienced.
I have spoken a lot and so I would like to end this with a small piece of advice. The people we love and are surrounded with are a big part of what makes life worth living. And it will never be easy watching them suffer. And the thing I learned and if there is anything I would hope you take away from this is that you know what you can handle and what is good for you. Your brain and your body tells you what your limits are and what you need. The best thing you can do for you and your loved ones is make sure you personally are okay and that you set healthy boundaries when supporting those around you. More often than not setting boundaries isn’t easy and can cause overwhelming anxiety, however in the end the healthiest thing you can do for your relationship. The boundaries you set will be different in every situation and what worked for me may not work for you and that’s okay because you are the only one who really knows what’s best for you. Take the time to learn your body’s signals and what you can handle. Whether that looks like telling them that you aren’t in a healthy head space to have those conversations or deciding to have more serious conversations in person rather than over the phone or social media. No matter what boundaries you put in place for your situation the most important things to remember are:
● Make sure both parties are on the same page and understand what is being asked of them.
● If you are overwhelmed or need to take a step back allow yourself to do so. Just do your part by making yourself available when possible if needed and have other resources or support options for you loved ones (i.e. Mental health hotline, professional support options, another friendly face, etc). You can do what you need for you and still support them to the best of your ability.
● Never sacrifice your mental health as much as you love someone. It is always a healthier option to take care of yourself first so that you are in your best condition possible to support others.
● Last but not least always remember that you are doing the best you can. You are worth, you are amazing, and you are loved. If you need support ask for help and those who love you can help you take the steps necessary to make sure you are healthy and safe (: