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
Mental Health With Those You Love
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 (:
What Truly is “Self-Care”?
This fourth edition of Featured Advocates Month blog posts is written by Sonya Patel. Sonya Patel is a fifth year Economics student from Queen’s University. During her time at Queen’s, she has worked towards adapting and updating Queen’s policy / resources available in the mental health field and taken in a service and therapy dog named Lola (SAS mascot). Sonya joined Step Above Stigma in 2017, and has remained actively involved with her positions as VP of Community Outreach in 2018-2019, Co-President in 2019-2020, and Human Resources Director in 2020-2021.
In today’s society, we often hear the quote, “it’s a fine line between self-care and self-destruction [and boy do I walk it]”, and immediately flash back to times we’ve drank caffeine out of the wazoo, slept 23 out of the 24 hours in a day, avoided a term paper until the last second, or ate a whole box of pizza and cookies. (Trust, we ALL do that sometimes). To most, those actions would be immediately classified as self-destruction, but is it truly?
Immediately classifying these situations as self-destruction is to be looking at the situation objectively - and there’s where the issue lies! Take “Sally” for example: she maintains a 3.8 GPA, is involved in 3 clubs, has 2 jobs, takes a full class load, and has a picture-perfect relationship. If she was to have a typical “self-destruction episode”, most would classify it as “much-needed self-care”. But in contrast, if you take “Joe” for example: struggles to maintain a 2.0 GPA, is involved in one club, is taking a part-time student class load, and has income in the form of government bursaries, we classify his typical “self-destruction episode” as just that, “self-destruction”. Looking at these situations objectively, “outside-in”, or in simpler terms, failing to understand the factors leading to and influencing our versions of self-care, we are misguided in our bias and opinions.
So why do we have this bias about self-care, and what can we do to confront it both in ourselves and our social circles? We assume that only the most visibly successful are deserving of self-care, as in, “they worked hard, they deserve to relax and let go sometimes”. We, as not the person in question, never will have the “full picture” - we can’t see the intangible successes and hidden barriers to “visible success”. This is where mental, physical, and emotional health plays its part. While 5/5 people have mental health and ⅕ struggle with mental health conditions, the other ⅘ have the likelihood of not experiencing or having the exposure to the effects of mental health struggle, and how it can impact all aspects of your life. “Joe” may be struggling with a mental, physical, or emotional condition, for which the impacts on his life may be visibly seen by his objectively “lack of success”.
Success can mean so many different things, to so many different people, we all have our own version, as we are all affected and changed by unique factors. Success in my version, after my long history with detrimental depression, anxiety and eating disorders, equates to a life where I graduate with a honours bachelor's degree, am hired by a firm that I am happy and proud to work at, eventually enrol in and graduate from an MBA program, and continually work on my mental health to the point I use my experiences as passion for mental health advocacy. Some of my “successes” are tangible, while others are not. Others may have a completely different version, but we are all the same - we all work the same amount to amount to our goals, and each have our own versions of self-care that get us to that finish line.
So what can we do about it? Well for starters, stop, think and check yourself before you judge others. We’ve ALL had those days where sleeping 99% of the day is what it takes for us to work harder and better the next day. While it may only take you one day of “self-care” to boost yourself, others may take days, weeks, or even years to be our “normal” selves again. Accept it! Accept what is, what can be, and what has happened. Don’t be dismayed at yourself or others for how “long” your self-care might take because who knows, maybe that extra time may be what is needed for you to excel further than you thought was possible, breaking your own limits and goals at a faster rate.
While we all may be walking a line between self-care and self-destruction at times, it is our OWN line, not some predetermined societal version of a line. So go ahead, take your time, eat 80 pizza rolls, binge watch an entire show in 3 days or sleep for 24 hours, we know, that you know, it’s what you need for your self-care!
This third edition of Featured Advocates Month blog posts is written by Aidan Bonner. Aidan is a recent high school graduate and is heading to Dalhousie University this fall to pursue his passions in Commerce and Political Science. Aidan is a proud supporter of mental health and has been on Step Above Stigma’s executive team since the beginning in 2017, serving as the Vice President of Online Services.
At 11:59 PM on December 31, 2019, myself and many others did two critical things; firstly, they reflected on what type of year they had in 2019, and secondly, they considered what 2020 may have in store for them. What milestones will you hit? What are you looking forward to? What are you dreading? Who will you bring into your life? Who will you leave in the past?
For myself, my envisioned 2020 focused on upcoming life moments. Semi-formal, prom, March Break, graduation, university acceptances, accepting a university and spending my last summer with my friends before we all move onto the next chapter of our lives.
As you can probably guess, those events I had envisioned for this year were either cancelled, altered, or postponed. Never in a million years would I have imagined my semi-formal being cancelled, my March Break travel being shortened because the borders were closing, my graduation being held virtually on my TV, my university being held completely online and my friends and I all spending time with each other at six feet distance. Never in a million years I would have imagined myself writing a blog post reflecting on how suddenly my life changed because of a worldwide pandemic. But here we are.
Sure, it’s easy to respond to all of this with a simple “c’est la vie”, but for myself and many others, it has been hard to just roll with the punches that 2020 has brought upon us and as an eighteen year old, I feel like this year has taught me more about life than anything else has.
So as I sit here on my deck that overlooks a public park which usually fills the air with laughter and voices on a sunny August afternoon but is now quiet and eerie, I have collected my thoughts into five dot-jots of what I have personally learned about life at just eighteen years old.
1. Cherish every moment. You never know when your last moment with a person or at a place will be, so always treat every moment like your last. As a now graduated high school student, I have reflected on my “last” day at my school, Wednesday, March 11th, 2020 before school was turned virtual for the remainder of the year. I often dwell on that day and how now looking back I had no idea that was going to be my last day walking down those halls, walking to the front of school to meet my friends, stressing about Calculus assignments and upcoming projects. That’s the thing about life: we all get so caught up in what our daily lives bring upon us that we never get to stop, look around and take everything in. It sounds very cliché of myself, but I would do anything to go back to that day, to be able to go back and say thank you to my teachers once last time, take in the hustle of all the students cramming those narrow hallways and getting one last sense of that crazy high school atmosphere that we all took for granted.
2. Life is like a wave. You can either ride the current or you can crash under the waves. Try and be adaptive to what waves are thrown at you. Or in other words, don’t plan your life. Let life plan it for you and enjoy the ride. Funny enough, I feel like a hypocrite writing this dot-jot. I have always been a planner; I love to plan ahead, know what’s coming up and what I can look forward to, but after living through this pandemic, I already know that this part of me will outstandingly change. My early months of 2020 were full of the typical high school senior stress of grades, university acceptances, and planning ahead for my first year as a university student at Dalhousie University. Now in August, I can tell you that I will be staying home in Ontario and doing courses from my laptop virtually. This is just one (of many, trust me) examples of how you really can never plan your life. Things are always going to change and adapt around you, whether you like it or not, so it is better to have an idea of what you want to happen and let the rest fall in place for you. This ideology applies to anything though; education, work, personal life, or professional life. Always try and let life plan for you and just enjoy the ride.
3. Take every opportunity you can. Yes, this one seems a bit predictable because I am a recent high school graduate, but making sure you take every opportunity that is brought to your attention is crucial to make the most of your time. As the school years went on, I found that I personally felt more inclined to use this approach, not only for opportunities to speak upon for my university applications later, but also to try and make the most of my years in high school. Whether it was joining new clubs, trying out competitions, applying for executive positions within extracurriculars, going for lunch with friends as much as possible, or making the extra effort to reach out to friends and classmates, these were ways to make sure that I was capitalizing on my time. As I have talked to many friends during the pandemic, the one thing I have heard most is that because our senior year got cut short in March, most of my friends were looking forward to taking those opportunities between April and June, but 2020 had other ideas in store. This is evidence that you can’t always wait for those upcoming opportunities; you must look around present day, see what’s available for you and take those opportunities. I guarantee in twenty years when you look back at things, those sporadic opportunities you took will be more meaningful to you then the things that were planned for you.
4. Be authentically you. Life is too short to worry about what others think. For myself, this one is personal. For years I would worry about what others thought and would say, I would be a reserved version of myself and limit my social media presence because of this. In one of my proudest self-development moments, I quickly realized that people are going to always say something about you or always have an opinion on what you’re doing, so why not do life your way? Why be afraid to say what you think? Why be afraid to post that picture on Instagram because you’re worried what others may think about it? These are common questions at age 18 in 2020, but they are an opportunity to talk about the bigger picture being simply, “why do we care?”. We are all on this earth for a short amount of time, we need to do what makes the authentic version of yourself happy, not what others want you to do.
5. Reach out. Make that phone call. Text that person. Reach out to those you love and care about and tell them how you feel. In unprecedented times like this during a pandemic, the opportunity to sit down and reflect on your life, those in your life and how they impact your life is so important. This pandemic has taught me that although we are all distanced right now, making those efforts to reach out to those you love and care about makes everyone feel closer during tough times like these.
This pandemic hasn’t been easy on anyone. One of the only “positives” of this entire situation is that we have been forced to reflect on everything; our last few months, the last few years, our current life statuses, relationships, friendships. Personally, this reflection has allowed me to grow as a person but also allowed me to sit here today and write these life lessons for you all today. Don’t get me wrong; life is tough, but we are all tougher. We will overcome this pandemic and the rest of what the year throws at us and be stronger at the end of the day.
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
Mental Health is for Everyone
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!
Overcoming My Fear Of Failure
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.
Read our blog posts about personal experiences and stories with regards to mental health. Posts written by our team or those passionate about mental health.