This second edition of Featured Advocates Month blog posts is written by Daniel Rivera. Daniel is a recent Life Sciences graduate from Queen’s University. During Daniel's time at Queen's, he had an interest in supporting health on campus and helped lead a long-term student mental health research project at Queen’s in collaboration with Oxford University. Currently, he has taken on the role of President at the Stratas Foundation which supports evidence-based mental health research and early-career researchers. Next, Daniel will be starting his MSc degree at University of Toronto in the fall.
Improving mental health isn’t always straightforward. One size does not fit all and mental health itself is an ever-changing part of individuals and communities. However, there is no a lack of effort amongst the many supporters, leaders, advocates, and other impassioned individuals who strive every day to make sustainable, positive change for themselves or those around them. It was the effort of these unrelenting leaders and resilient individuals that inspired me to get involved with mental health. While no single effort of mine alone holds the key to getting where we want to as a society in terms of mental health, I strongly believe that our combined and diverse efforts will bring us closer to that place. In this post, I’ll share a bit of what I’ve learned about mental health and how I’ve tried to act upon it.
As a university-level science student, you’re supposed to value evidence and research. In the beginning of undergrad, though, I was far more concerned with jotting down everything the professor said. In a way, I took what I was learning for granted, not thinking about how the things we take as fact came to be. I realize now that a bullet point might have taken years, if not decades, of many peoples’ lives to make it to a university lecture slide. And this is also true for mental health care and current knowledge – much of what we know is due to someone, at some point, somewhere, having made the effort to understand mental health better. Somewhat early in my undergrad, I became involved with mental health research wanting to know more about it, having started to really see how it affected those close to me. Three years later, one of the things that I’ve learned is how prevalent mental health problems are among young people. Of course, it isn’t surprising they are at heightened risk for mental health problems, but seeing it in graph form does take you a step back. What really surprised me, though, was when I realized how little we really know about mental health in young people, especially students – what protects their mental health, what challenges it, and how to effectively treat their mental health problems. Compounding this is that while one in five Canadians will experience a mental health problem or illness, costing the economy around 51 billion dollars (yes, billion), only four percent of Canadian public health research funding goes towards mental health. There is certainly a mismatch between what’s needed and what’s currently available. To remedy this, we must invest both effort and dollars to support the kind of research that will lead to more effective and accessible mental health support. This is the way I’ve joined the effort to improve the state of mental health in our communities. Without going into too much detail, I’ve learned more about student mental health and been able to share this research. Importantly, however, I wonder: what will come of all this?
Turning evidence into action is the second thing I want to talk about. A better understanding of mental health through research serves little purpose if not turned into something that can help real people. Some of the research I’ve helped lead seems as though it might actually do so – for that, I’m very excited. Through a collaborative effort, our research group is helping develop things like a new for-credit elective course at Queen’s focused on improving mental health literacy and helping students practice health-promoting behaviours. This course is being designed to help students succeed and improve their health and not just learn x, y, and z. Also in development is an online platform that will provide app-based resources for students to help them manage and increase their awareness of their own mental health symptoms. This is even being further explored as a tool that can supplement clinical care plans for students and make them more effective. As you can imagine, developing, evaluating, and eventually refining these things won’t be easy but, given their potential, they and the research from which they stem were worth it. As I move on in my life as a recent Queen’s graduate, I’ve been looking for ways to continue to turn what researching mental health has taught me into other forms of action. Most recently, I’ve joined a Canadian non-profit – The Stratas Foundation for Mental Health Research. This incredible organization supports the early-career mental health researchers who will shape the future of mental health in Canada by providing them with scholarships to advance their research. It also aims to encourage them to continue in a field were funding is limited, yet more is needed to transform mental health in Canada. Having had a glimpse of what is possible through mental health research, I’m driven to help the organization fundraise to support the discoveries and people that will change mental health care in the future. It was also my exposure to mental health research that helped me look beyond it towards other, more immediate, ways to support the cause. Through volunteering with Telephone Aid Line Kingston (TALK) – a confidential, anonymous, and non-judgemental listening service – I joined a group of passionate volunteers who work hard to make a difference in our community now, especially as it is being challenged by Covid-19. While research had excited me with its potential for the future, it also helped me realize the magnitude of my broader community’s current needs – which TALK works hard to help meet.
This is how I’ve personally decided to help change mental health in my community but it’s not the only way. From Step Above Stigma changing the way we think about mental health, groups focusing on supporting marginalized people’s mental health, or organizations or people lobbying for institutional changes, progress is being pursued on multiple, equally important fronts. And we can’t forget the people who regularly support their friends, peers, or even strangers in times of need – their everyday actions also make an incredible difference. My final thought on all this, I suppose, is to do what you can and what interests you most, no matter how big, small, or unique – together our combined and diverse efforts WILL bring us closer to a mentally healthier and more supportive community. Even if only one step at a time, we can turn our efforts into action and action into change.
This first edition of Featured Advocates Month blog posts is written by Aly Bonner. Aly Bonner is a graduating nursing student from Queen’s University. Aly’s time at Queen’s has been spent with a focus on mental health awareness, health promotion, and inclusivity. In 2017, Aly helped found Step Above Stigma with Ampai Thammachack and has been a key member of the organization since its establishment.
When I grew up as a kid I played on numerous sports teams and really admired individuals that emphasized the importance of physical activity to promote adequate physical health and well-being. Throughout high school I ate primarily nutritious meals, received a minimum of eight hours of sleep per night, and completed a minimum of 60 minutes of physical activity a day. Growing up, I looked forward to finishing school every day in order to hit the field to practice with my field hockey team or my rugby team. At the time, I did not have a thorough understanding of what mental health encompassed and as a result my transition into university was rather challenging.
In September of 2016, I started the next chapter of my life at Queen’s University. I entered the Arts and Science program and knew only a handful of people from my previous high school. Being away from my home, my family, and my friends was more challenging than I anticipated, and I quickly grew homesick. Additionally, adapting to new academic expectations was difficult and enhanced the level of stress and pressure I was exhibiting. When I started at Queen’s I joined an intramural rugby team to keep up with my physical activity but due to the minimal time commitment I wasn’t getting enough exercise and my eating habits had taken a turn for the worse. In early December, just prior to exam season, I was very stressed and eager to get home to my family and friends. While I was home over the holidays, I was introduced to the concept of mental health promotion and its contribution to one’s health. After learning about the topic, I did more research and realized the important relationship that exists between one’s physical and mental health. It quickly dawned on me that my physical activity throughout high school was an outlet for me to relieve my stress and promote positive mental health outcomes. My lack of such outlet in university was contributing to the deterioration of my mental health.
importance of mental health. In February of 2017, I helped Ampai Thammachak make Step Above Stigma a reality. Step Above Stigma aims to raise awareness and destigmatize mental illness, whilst removing the financial barriers that surround mental health resources within Canada. To date, Step Above Stigma has raised more than $25,000 for mental health organizations within Canada and has simultaneously improved mental health awareness. I was very fortunate to be able to work with passionate individuals who want to advocate for mental health. While my time at Queen’s University has now come to an end, I am excited to pass the torch on to new executives who are eager to make change locally and globally. I will continue to be an advocate for mental health and hope to see the more mental health support and resources in the near future. We all have mental health.
Written by Step Above Stigma's Vice President of Community Outreach, Jake Eisen.
Compassion fatigue is defined by CAMH as the feeling of “vicarious trauma”, and to me, that’s one of the best ways to describe the state of mind of feeling helpless and mentally drained. And I know it better than most people would assume. Let’s talk about it.
Most people know me as someone that cares about others. Maybe a bit too much sometimes. But to me, it provides comfort. Knowing that the people around me are supported, cared for, and have an outlet to vent to is essential to me and to my values. But when you become that figure of
support, care, and peer therapy every day, for months on end, it begins to take a serious toll on your well-being unlike anything else. And I’ve dealt with compassion fatigue at least once every couple months.
I didn’t know much about mental health advocacy, or compassion fatigue for that matter, until January of last year. Someone that I started talking to had asked me for support and advice, and so I offered my care. However, this ended up lasting for six weeks straight, and so began a daily routine of listening to this person vent every single frustration to me, as well as come to me for triggered trauma support. While I knew that it was important to be there for them and to not leave them in anguish, I began feeling extremely numb and detached from my university experience. My commitment to schoolwork deteriorated, and my housemates knew that something was off. I felt ineffective. Lost. Burnt out. Hopeless. I was told I was “inconsiderate for
asking for support” and that I “should learn what empathy means”, and yet I didn’t know why – since I was giving someone validation, an ear to listen, and undivided attention during their times of trauma.
One day in January, I got an e-mail saying I had been selected as a delegate for the Jack.org Regional Summit in Kingston, and I knew that this was my opportunity to become more educated on how I was feeling. Hearing so many stories of people who had gone through similar situations had not only opened my eyes to the world of advocating for mental health, but also to the steps I needed to take to repair my own mental health. After learning about what compassion fatigue was, I began to mentally check off how many of the signs were applicable to me, and what I had to do to ensure I could look out for those signs moving forward in supporting others.
Metaphorically speaking, let’s imagine that those venting are a bottle of tequila. Most people think that everyone can handle a bit of tequila, right? Some people can handle more, but very few people can down a whole bottle of tequila and be okay afterwards, because the tequila can affect someone badly. Even fewer people can handle a whole bottle of tequila every day. However, some people aren't comfortable with that much tequila, and it's not okay to force tequila down someone's throat, right? One should always consider how the person drinking feels as well, because they are doing their very best and understanding how they are feeling is crucial too, especially when the tequila is hitting them hard. It's the exact same with venting - you would never force someone to listen to you vent day after day because it's not healthy. Asking the other person if they're interested in listening or if they could offer support is so important because you never know how someone else may be feeling. Furthermore, feelings of compassion fatigue
(or drunkenness, within the metaphor) can be very impactful on the listener and will not allow them to help at 100%.
The hardest part for me was telling someone that I needed to focus on my own mental health. If you’ve ever supported someone over time, you know that feeling of guilt and selfishness that comes from telling someone you need to take a step back. It can be one of the hardest things to disclose to someone you’re supporting, but it’s essential for your own mental well-being. My best piece of advice for someone experiencing compassion fatigue is to refer them to other lines of support (other friends and/or family, a helpline, crisis centres if applicable) during this time to ensure you yourself can practice self-care.
So, what can you do to be proactive about compassion fatigue? Your own mental health is your top priority, and practicing self-care is vital so that you can be the best version of yourself. Be mindful of how much you can support, and how as supporters we do not have full control over the lives of others. Emotional boundaries can also be helpful, while also ensuring they can be
flexible depending on other aspects of your life that may affect it. It’s crucial to understand that these are not wholly applicable to everyone, since we all have different healthy coping methods, and that’s okay. The important thing is to take a step back, so that you can focus on your own self-care.
I encourage everyone to understand how real compassion fatigue is, and that
it truly is okay to take a step backwards. You are doing amazing; I promise
Written by Step Above Stigma's Vice President of Marketing, Adriana Mangos.
For each and every one of us, taking care of ourselves means looking after both our mental and physical health. Keeping mentally healthy is just as important as keeping physically healthy when it comes to maintaining our wellness. We all experience highs and lows in our mental health. We can have good, bad, or okay days. We have our worries, fears, and stresses; things that keep us up at night or race through our minds during the day. This is perfectly normal! But it’s important to be aware of our mental health so that we can take care of ourselves accordingly.
Having low periods in your mental health does not mean that you have a mental illness. We all struggle to manage our mental health at times. Some people have been struggling for longer than others (I, personally, just recently began struggling with my mental health). But it’s important to understand that although someone may seem extremely confident or happy, they may have their own internal struggles that they are trying to hide or are trying to get through on their own.
During my first year of university, I started struggling with my mental health—especially during stressful times like exam seasons. Not knowing much about mental health, I didn’t know how to cope, why I felt the way I did, or where to go to seek help. Looking back onto this past year, I now understand what mental health means to me, and how I can help myself and support others in the future.
The first step in understanding mental health and getting through our personal struggles is to remember that we are not alone in the battles we face. Sometimes, we might feel alone. We might feel like no one understands us; like they’ll never comprehend what we’re going through. We might think, “How could they possibly know how I feel?” But it’s important to remember that there are always people whose struggles are similar to ours and who might understand the way we feel. Talking about mental health makes us stronger. Actively taking steps to reflect on our mental health makes us stronger. We shouldn’t feel the need to hide or be ashamed of our struggles. Mental health is a fundamental part of all of us, and it is not something that should be swept under the rug due to fear of judgment or because we’re too busy with the world around us to address our mental wellness. Managing our mental health makes us stronger.
Written by Step Above Stigma's Vice President of Marketing, Sarah McCleary.
Fear is natural. Be it of heights or spiders. The dark, getting a stain on your new white shirt or just of change in general. Fear is something that we all experience from time to time. Yet, this dreaded F-word isn’t always so bad. Most people have probably heard to “do one thing a day that scares you.” The question that arises with such a statement, however, is “but why?”. It seems a bit odd to do something that provokes fear in oneself, but as beautifully worded by Eleanor Roosevelt, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face… You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
By no means am I implying by this blog post that if you fear sky diving to jump out of a plane tomorrow to overcome this fear (I could never, ever skydive). Rather, I am referring to the simpler things. In fact, the small fears that people face on a daily basis are what inspired me to write this. The other day I went to Starbucks with a friend. When I received my order, they accidentally made me a hot coffee instead of the iced one I ordered. Usually, I would probably suck it up because I wouldn’t want to bother them to make it again, but being the 30˚C it was outside, that option just wasn’t going to fly. So, I went up to the counter to politely explain the situation and they made me another one. While waiting the second time for my drink to be prepared, my friend leaned over and told me that he was too nervous to do something like that. What he said got me thinking about how there was a time when I was younger that I would make my mom order for me at a restaurant or a take-out place because I was too scared to order myself and how as I got older I would sometimes have to ask questions or order for my friends. These are the simple fears I am talking about overcoming. Asking for your drink to be remade is surmountable, and something that everyone should overcome sooner as opposed to later. Same with fearing a small change, going into the basement alone, having an interview, etc.
Therefore, I will return the “but why?” question referred to in the first paragraph. In order to overcome your fears, you must be exposed to them. It is impossible to truly conquer a fear if you never do the thing that scares you. Think back to being a child. It is safe to say that most of you were nervous about riding your bike without training wheels at first. But once you did it the first, second, third, and so on time, the fear slowly vanished. It can take time for a fear to go away, but the fear will always remain if you continue to shy away from the thing causing it. Whether you’d like to admit it or not, the fear is holding you back in some manner. Perhaps it interferes with your social or school life. Maybe it is as simple as it takes longer for you to do something because you have to wait for someone else to grab what you wanted from the creepy, old shed. After all, what is the worst that could happen? I mean, what TRULY is the worst that could happen? The server you ask to remake your order is a bit rude and irritated? The spider you mustard up the courage to kill got away? You fall and scrape your knee while trying rollerblading? The worst-case scenario is often not as bad as you initially dream up in your head. Sure, don’t try a black diamond ski hill right off the bat if ski hills larger than the bunny hill make you anxious. However, take a minute to sit back and really think of what the absolutely worst, most terrible case may be.
Facing my fears is something that I have and continue to struggle with. I recognize that I need to defeat my smaller, simpler fears more often, such as calling people I don’t know over the phone. When I switched high schools after Grade 10, it was initially terrifying. I thought I may have made a grave mistake, and I longed to go back to my previous school. However, it turned out to be a fantastic experience, and I am so incredibly happy for all that I gained by going to another school. Overcoming this nerve-wracking venture allowed me to realize that the fear instilled by certain changes, activities, or things can be defeated. Fear can be scary to face, but it may result in one of the best things you’ve ever done once it is overcome!
Written by Step Above Stigma's Vice President of Events & Initiatives, Jae Makitalo.
I have never been comfortable with the idea of failure, most of us probably aren’t. Most people can push through the fear of failure and use it as a motivator for success. I used to think this was a skill I had, but I soon realized it was most certainly not. I probably used to use my fear of failure as a motivator, but once I started experiencing failure, fear became everything but a motivator and it didn’t take long for me to become the queen of catastrophizing. I can take a single event (like an assignment, a test or even a social interaction), and in about two minutes I can tell you how the next 10 years of my life will be affected if this event went poorly.
Feeling like 10 years of your life could be derailed by messing up one thing begins to make you feel like your chances of succeeding are non-existent. Succeeding at something doesn’t get rid of this feeling, it just pushes it onto the next thing you can screw up. That kind of stress can break someone, and that it exactly what it did to me. I can’t remember a time where I didn’t look months or years ahead at how I wanted my life to play out and think of every single way I could screw it up. I have always been the girl with a plan B, just in case I needed it, and a plan C, a plan D, a plan E…. you probably get the point. I used to think I was just being prepared; I didn’t realize how detrimental this kind of thinking could be until I began to spiral out of control. However, because I was so prepared, when I finally began to fall apart, I happened gradually. I managed to always have a trick up my sleeve to try and keep me on track.
Although this may have slowed my derailment, it did not make the fall out any less catastrophic. In fact, it probably made it worse. On top of that, I presented as someone with boat load of university stress, which made it harder to figure out my underlying cause: a generalized anxiety disorder. When I finally got my diagnosis, it made it so much easier to understand my fear and what was going on in my brain. I was put on medication to manage my anxiety and started cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to try and understand my mind so I could figure out how to manage it. When I finally started making progress and the work I put in started to bring me closer to my goals, my fear got worse. I didn’t understand why I was so scared of failing. My work was paying off, and everything I put my mind to I succeed in, yet I couldn’t bring myself to believe that I was ever going to reach my goals.
I had become so accustomed to failing over the past few years, I wasn’t sure I was able to succeed anymore. Feeling like this was heartbreaking. I was not someone who peaked in high school, I may have been successful in my studies but I felt uncomfortable in my own skin, struggled with feeling like I was going to lose the friends I had and just wanted to get out into the world and prove to myself that I was worth something. Yet, after all this, I couldn’t help but think that maybe I had peaked in high school. Maybe that was as good as things were going to get for me. Everything seemed to go downhill once I moved on to university and I had all these big dreams that seemed to remain out of my reach.
For the past year, I’ve found myself constantly shifting between a “You can do this! You just have to work hard and keep your mental health in check” and “You’re riding on luck, don’t get too excited because it can run out any second” headspace. Although I never really felt good in this headspace, I didn’t usually feel that bad either. I always just felt sort of okay. But after a while, coasting through life in a mindset where the good things don’t feel good just so the bad things don’t feel as bad isn’t fun anymore. So, I finally decided I couldn’t continue like that. I didn’t want to feel like my life was driven by fear. I wanted to succeed, and I wanted to know that when I did, it was because I worked my ass off and earned every bit of it.
In June, I realized I needed to change. If I was no longer going to let myself be ruled by fear, I had some serious work to do. I made the choice to distance myself from all unnecessary forms of social media to give myself the opportunity to really check in with myself and figure out how I was feeling. I started journaling almost every day to make this process easier, doing yoga daily and I began to really dig into my copy of See Me, by Hailey Rodgers (one of our amazing co-presidents).
The first thing I learned about myself was that even when writing in a journal that only I will read, I am so scared of being judged by what I put down on paper. It’s like I have this feeling that the karmic forces of the universe are going to reek havoc on my life if I admit something that I’m not proud of or struggling with. Instead of working through my thoughts and feelings, I think I just got used to avoiding them the best I could just so I wouldn’t feel as bad all the time. When I finally started putting things down on paper that mattered, it was almost refreshing. I mean, admitting things that I had been hiding from myself really sucked, but it felt like it was something I could manage once it was down on paper.
The second thing I learned was that once I got comfortable with the thoughts going through my head, I didn’t feel the need to try and drown them out with distractions all the time. Silence used to make me so uncomfortable because I couldn’t control what went through my mind. I usually end up over analyzing everything I can think of which makes me unbelievably anxious. Getting those thoughts and feeling out made them feel less daunting, which made it easier to control the narrative inside my mind. Once I realized this, it was so much easier to keep the good stuff centered in my mind and rationally think through the rest.
The final, and most important thing I learned was where the underlying fear of failure was coming from. When I started experiencing failure, it sucked but I could almost always rationalize it. I wasn’t sleeping and I was dealing with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder. Although I probably could have managed my situation better or reach out for help sooner, it’s no surprise that it had a negative affect on my success. After starting medication and CBT, I began to feel like I wasn’t allowed to be anything other than my best because I no longer had a reason not to be. I know this isn’t the case and I can’t expect to always be functioning perfectly just because I know what causes me to spiral out of control. However, I realized that I have this fear that no matter how hard I work or how much I try, my best will never be good enough and I still won’t be able to achieve my goals. Without having a ‘reason’ to fail, the idea of just not being good enough scares me more than failure itself. So, I guess I don’t really have a fear of failing, but a fear of not being good enough, and that not being good enough is what will cause me to fail. It took me a while to come to this realization, but now that I have, I can start navigating my way through it. I have also realized that this fear doesn’t make my successes feel like successes. I see them more as just doing what is expected of me instead of accomplishing anything. But when I fail, I feel like I have hit my absolute rock bottom. Every. Single. Time. I end up feeling discouraged and stupid for ever thinking I could succeed in the first place. And as much as this feeling sucks, I just know that when I finally overcome all of this, I will have become the definition of resilient.
This past month hasn’t been easy, and I know that I still have so many things to work through. But, for the first time in a long time, I am beginning to feel like I’m in a good place. I feel like I can accomplish what I put my mind to, and that fear won’t be able to hold me back anymore. It’s not easy to keep this headspace but the feeling confident, happy, and seeing the progress I have made makes the work feel manageable. Fear can be such a powerful tool if you can harvest its power and keep it from working against you, but the journey there is not an easy one. With that being said, the reward is definitely worth it.
Written by Step Above Stigma's Vice President of Events & Initiatives, Camila Mercado.
Productivity, as defined by the Cambridge dictionary is “the rate at which a person, company, or country does useful work". As a university student, the goal of productivity is always on my mind. Whether it be studying for tests, planning events for my extracurriculars, or getting a workout in, I am always trying to do the most with my day.
For me, productivity is measured in results: How much did I sweat? How many readings did I do? How many errands did I run? Curiously enough, I tend to incorporate self-care and mental health into this productivity checklist as well. For example, how many self-care activities have I done this week?
Did a face-mask
Took a nap/ break from school
Made some art
These things might not seem like examples of productivity. Perhaps you even believe this self-care list entails the opposite; a break from productivity.
However, if we look back to our definition, productivity is “the rate at which a person... does useful work". All these self-care activities are meant to be “useful” to me. The more I take care of myself by using all the tools available to me, the better my mental health will be: self-care will give me tangible results. Being aware of how self-quarantine could negatively affect my mental health I started to keep a daily routine consisting of a half an hour workout, journaling and meditating in order to productively take care of myself and obtain my result: mental wellness.
Well, guess what. I did not obtain the results I was expecting. I began to show a lot of physical symptoms that were brought on by anxiety, which I have never experienced before. Suddenly, I wasn’t being productive in any way. I saw people around me being productive by taking on new projects, becoming entrepreneurs, getting a full-time job, or by slowing down and taking care of their mental health. It seemed like everyone around me was achieving something. This is when I realized that I also understood self-care in terms of productivity. I wasn’t being productive like many around me professionally and I also didn’t feel productive in terms of self-care because I didn’t feel well. This only made me feel worse as I am someone who likes being productive and is up for a challenge. So, why couldn’t I do that this summer?
Well, I came to a conclusion that it wasn’t that I had stopped being productive but that my productivity looked different.
Productivity is not necessarily tangible or visible.
If an employer comes to me and asks me what I did in the summer of 2020 I cannot say that I did an impressive internship or engaged in a personal creative project. What I can say is that my body and my mind fought every single day despite the anxiety, despite the physical pain, despite the limited resources I had to feel better. I fought to never give up on myself. Sometimes that fight was visible: calling friends, going for a walk and baking my favourite cookies. Some days my productivity was invisible, it was just me getting through the day the best I could even if my best was crying all day. I have no proof or tangible result of my summer productivity other than myself. But, if you ask me, I can’t think of a better example of productivity than the time and energy we spend on ourselves when every day seems like a battle. It’s not that I wasn’t productive this summer, I was struggling. I was productive this summer because I struggled, and if fighting for myself every day is not “useful work” I don’t know what is.
Written by Step Above Stigma's Vice President of Events & Initiatives, Jacob Shaddock.
I feel like I’m constantly bombarded by questions about what my goals and dreams are – as if my current situation is inadequate or lacking and that I should always be striving for more. That has really gotten into my head and I suspect it gets into a lot of our heads. We start to think the only way to be happy is to continuously achieve greater feats – whether it is to make more money, higher our education, or spend more time at the gym. And listen - setting goals and dreams can be helpful and serve as a great motivator for positive change - but it can bring a tide of self-pity and crush self-fulfillment if we struggle to reach our desired destination. Totally set goals for self-improvement but also learn to be okay with where you are.
Please do not mistake my message as suggesting that there is no point changing your current situation but rather learn to make the most of where you are. Learn to not be okay. Learn that actively pursuing happiness by attaining particular goals will never make you happy. The idea of happiness as something that can be achieved through certain actions is a falsehood of great tragedy. Free yourself by choosing to live in your moment and make the most of it.
Happiness is not an item at the store you can buy – it is a mindset. It is a mindset that takes practise by learning to stop judging yourself and others, helping yourself and others, enjoying the sunset and seeing the value in reading your course textbook. Happiness is something we learn not buy, achieve, or steal – and most importantly we need others to learn it. You can never truly be happy if you spend large parts of your day judging and hurting others because even though it feels like an attack against others it is really an attack against yourself. If we spend large parts of the day complaining about slow wifi or having work we will never be happy. Rather than complaining learn to be okay with little nuisances because one day you may miss them (such as your parents bugging you about your last night out). Evaluate the things in your life causing you stress and decide what needs to be removed such as a toxic friendship.
It is clear in this time that change is essential – it is okay to be angry and frustrated. Accept those feelings and allow them to motivate you. Remember that change does take time, as annoying as that is, but change is natural and how we grow as a society. However, do not fall into a psychological trap by equating happiness to change – when things change it will not give you happiness as a by-product. You must choose to make the most of your current situation, use it to grow, and learn to be happy rather than expect it to occur naturally.
Finally, stop being a dick. Learn to care about others because without them you will never be happy. Support your local BLM movement by educating yourself and raising black voices. Watch movies and Youtube videos by black creators, read books, and re-post on Instagram. Order food from a local black owned business – Uber Eats has made it very easy. Donate if you are able but most importantly listen. Listen without defense or reactivity but support. Trust me – being there for others will make you much happier than sitting in your own self-pity and guilt.
Written by Step Above Stigma's Vice President of Internal Sales, Karolina Bejmert.
I’ve struggled with my mental health for a long time. In high school it was the first time that I could really acknowledge that there is something not quite right up in the old noggin. I’m the type of person who likes to think in the future, focus on things that will make you happy and let us keep trucking. So over all I have my struggles, but it really was not at its worst. As university began, it started to get worse as for many people. It was not something out of the ordinary for me that I was in a new environment, away from my boyfriend and friends, and socializing was not my favourite thing ever.
As things started to get better and I got more confident with my friend group and Queen’s in general, January 4th, 2018 happened. My best friend Victoria Benner lost her battle with Cystic Fibrosis.
Victoria and I met in the 9th grade; we were locker neighbours who shared a love for black licorice. She truly knew everything about me, she was my rock in times of stress, and the absolute funniest person I have ever know. She was the light at the end of my depression tunnel, always supporting me support, advice, and a shoulder to cry on. Victoria’s life was dedicated to staying alive. Countless hours of therapies, medications up the wazoo, and more doctors visits then anyone could imagine. But still this girl never complained about anything (expect for not being able to have a dog already). She was my makeup artist when I struggled to get my eyeliner straight, and the best cheerleader anyone could have in their life (literally).
Victoria had been in the hospital for a while. My boyfriend and I had gone to visit her during our winter break. Driving from Barrie to Toronto was the longest drive possible. It felt like forever. When I finally got there, we just talked like nothing had changed. If I only knew that would have been the last time, I was going to see her. I had gotten a call on the 3rd from Victoria’s aunt telling me that she is not doing so well and if we wanted to send her something, they would read it to her for us. I did not want to believe that she was that bad, but I sent it anyway. I still have that on my phone to this day. On the 4th, I got a second call from Victoria’s aunt. I was sitting at the table with my mom and I heard her aunt say, “Victoria has passed away” and I could not breath. My body and mind were numb. My other friend Hannah and I were close to her, so we called each other and just sat on the phone crying.
From that day forward it’s been a battle. My depression really got to an all time low. I could not move or do anything. Some days, I would eat everything in sight and others I would eat nothing. Hannah and I continued to call every little bit checking in on each other. When it came time to go to the wake, I was even more of a mess. Seeing your best friend in a casket is something I don’t wish on my worst enemy, but she still looked so much better than me. I was a little jealous. Oddly enough I think that is the day my healing started. Seeing so many of our friends from school and remembering how wonderful she was really helped. The amount of tears I shed that day I could probably fill up a pool. But I started to crack jokes, at the wake, in front of her grieving family and friends. Not a great look for me, but for some reason I felt like I had too. I felt like that’s what she would have wanted me to do, make everyone feel a little bit better.
Over the past two years I have developed some tips for dealing with a loss I would like to share:
1) Grief is a hard thing to process, especially at a pretty young age. Some people my have lost a grandparent or an uncle or aunt. Some people may have lost your parent(s). No matter what I want everyone to remember that grieving is an individual experience. Do not compare your grief to anyone else’s ever! We all process differently and at our own pace.
2) When I first began to grieve, I would push the feelings away and keep myself busy, so I didn’t think about her at all. But I realized that is not beneficial for anyone. Eventually I would have a mental breakdown and it would be at the worst time knowing me. So, I started off by trying to think of good memories when I felt sad. Sure, I still felt sad that they were just memories now, but I felt a feeling of happiness knowing I had those experiences with her.
3) I started to carry her picture in the back of my phone, on my screen saver and in my wallet. She went everywhere with me. I wanted to get used to thinking about her everyday without crying uncontrollably. It also made me feel oddly close to her.
4) Slowly, but surely, I started to tell stories with her in them again. At first, mentioning her to people was hard I would shed a tear or two but just like thinking about her, it got better. Eventually the sadness in my thoughts went away and happy memories are all that is left.
5) Lastly, I know it sounds silly, but I talk to her all the time. It really does help calm my mind, get what I need off my chest and move on. I tell her how much I miss her, updates about my life, things that bother me. For a while I even texted her phone number till one day, I got a text back from someone that was not her. Now I write her letters. Getting the feelings out really helps.
Do not get me wrong I cry about her a lot. I can’t help it I am a cry baby, she knew that, I know that, its just fact. I will always give myself a couple minutes if I need to cry. When I do, I try and remember all those times I came running to her crying and how she would have comforted me. There’s one thing she always did that made everything better. She made this weird noise; it was a mix between and piggy squeal and a snort. She would do that right in my ear while she was hugging me, and no matter how upset you were you would have no choice but to laugh.
Victoria has done so much for me in my life. I am so thankful I was able to call her my best friend. She pushes me to work on my mental health just like she did when she was here. Victoria’s mother and sister have also found a special place in my heart. They make me feel like family and not so alone. I am forever grateful for them. Most importantly, she continues to give me a sense of purpose. I want to be more like her everyday in every way possible. If I could only be half the women, she was then I would be happy.
Grief is hard. It will never be easy. Remember to talk about it with people you trust. Do not bottle it up inside. No matter what, remember the person you lost, no matter how hard it is to think about them. Now go and give your family and friends a hug, tell them you love them, because you never know how short life is going to be. If you would like to learn more about Cystic Fibrosis or to donate check out Cystic Fibrosis Canada: https://www.cysticfibrosis.ca/.
Written by Step Above Stigma's founder, Ampai Thammachack.
Say their names, read their stories, and know their faces.
I am talking about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, and the millions of other Black individuals murdered by police brutality and/or White supremacy.
Everyday, families worry that their loved one will not come home because they were racially profiled by a system that was not designed to protect all.
Everyday, members of the Black community hear statements that are racist and wrong even from friends and peers who “didn’t mean any harm.”
Everyday, Black individuals strive to and break glass ceilings, even though they were actually built with concrete.
These examples along with countless other injustices and barriers that began when slave traders forcibly, evilly, and cruelly brought men, women and children to America, are what we cannot stop fighting to change.
As a member of the Black community, seeing the positive action online and in person has been transformative. I am so thankful that the words and experiences of the Black community are being amplified in unprecedented ways. However, I just hope that people really listen and that systemic change finally comes.
Change is not an option and neither is ignorance. Reform needs to come at every level including the institutions that shape our society and the day to day interactions we have all had.
It is crucial, now more than ever, that we put our money where our mouths are and do more than post the black screen.
With that said, I am so proud to say that the Step Above Stigma team stood in solidarity and raised $1310 from team members alone, in just 24 hours. Funds will be split evenly between the Loveland Foundation Therapy Fund and Black Mental Health Alliance. “The Loveland Foundation Therapy Fund brings healing through fellowships, residency programs, listening tours and more to empower the communities they serve (1).” Additionally, “The Black Mental Health Alliance develops, promotes and sponsors trusted culturally relevant educational programs, training and referral services that support the health and wellbeing of Black people and other vulnerable communities (2).” The work these organizations do is an inspiration to us all.
I am also excited to say that Step Above Stigma is working on a way to create longterm change with regards to Black mental health and has something very exciting in the works!
Speaking of work, the work to instil in our society that all lives cannot matter until Black Lives Matter must never stop. All mental health does not matter until Black mental health matters, and that starts with us.