Written by Step Above Stigma's Vice President of External Sales, Maya Fillion
When I think back about the day that this was said to me, I never could have imagined the impacts it would have down the road.
She was right, wasn’t she? Valedictorian of my graduating class, president of student council, captain of my volleyball team, accepted to the university of my choice, working, volunteering – really in a good place. It is only now, years later, that I have the perspective to understand how harmful minimizing mental health and wellness and their symptoms in high functioning individuals can be.
Being told that people like me don’t suffer from mental health was something I truly believed. So, when I began to have symptoms of mental illness, I didn’t seek help or have conversations but began to attribute it to other things in my environment.
I remember the first time I made an excuse for what I was feeling. It was when I was choosing which university to attend. From the very first acceptance letter, it was knots in my stomach, constant nausea and tears every time I was asked where I would be heading in the fall. “It was normal to feel this way, its growing pain, its transition”, it was not possibly anxiety, because people like me don’t suffer from mental health issues.
So, I moved across the province for university from my quaint Northwestern Ontario city; something I’ve always wanted. I met the best friends, travelled on long weekends, had a greater appreciation for family holidays and learned more about topics I was so passionate about. But I was off, I hadn’t slept properly in months, no amount of coffee gave me the energy to pull myself out of bed. Empty buses caused me to lose my breath or not be able to breathe. My fingers and toes were always numb, the knot in my stomach constant. I had no idea what was wrong, but I was sure it wasn’t depression or anxiety because people like me don’t suffer from mental health issues.
This notion of not suffering from mental health inhibited my self-awareness of what I needed and led me to keep a façade that I was thriving in my new environment. It was not that I didn’t want to ask for help; it is that I didn’t know I should because ‘people like me didn’t suffer from mental health issues.’
I had never previously felt stigma surrounding conversations of mental health, perhaps because they were never in the context of myself. It is only now that I’ve realized in my experience, one person created the stigma surrounding my mental health, and one person took it away. I am thankful for both.
Being told I would never suffer from any form of mental health issue and being able to keep my normal pace created this entrenched belief that I couldn’t possibly have anxiety or panic. It made me believe that others might suffer, but I couldn’t. Now, truly understanding mental health and wellness has been a form of self-care and care for others beyond what I could ever explain. It has allowed me to communicate better about the things I need, be more empathetic and understanding, be kinder to myself and those around me and overall prioritize myself in tough situations. That is not to say it was an easy road to learning, nor was it a straight path, but I am better for it.
To my sweet friend who took away the stigma in a moment’s conversation. I can’t ever forget when I thought I was telling you my deepest darkest secrets about my mental health struggle and you calmly looked at me after I finished speaking and said “and…. mental health struggles are something you have; they are not something you are.” BAM, a weight lifted. Since that conversation I now know; people like me do suffer from mental health issues, and it's ok, and it's normal, and you will get better, and feel happy, and succeed and thrive.
Mental health looks and feels different in each person and is a moving spectrum. People like you, and like me, and your parents and grandparents, and your friends and your neighbours and the person you walk past on the street may suffer from mental health issues. Pretending that you don’t suffer from a mental illness, or that other high functioning individuals who can hide it well don’t suffer, doesn’t mean we don’t, it simply means we’re taking away the spaces to have those conversations comfortably or even know that we need to have them.