Fighting mental health stigma starts from within

Learning to have compassion for myself helped me open up

Mental health doesn’t make you broken

This article discusses mental illness and suicide and may be triggering for some readers. The Canadian Mental Health Association Crisis Line can be reached at 1-800-875-6213.

Growing up, the only time I can remember learning about mental health was through my hockey association’s charity.

When I was 10 years old, there was a girl in my club a few years older than me, Daron Richardson, who committed suicide. Her dad was an assistant coach for the Ottawa Senators. After she died, her family started a charity called Do It For Daren (DIFD).

My hockey association became one of the leading supporters of DIFD. We sewed purple hearts on our jerseys and sold their merchandise at our tournaments. But I never fully understood how something like this could happen.

I could tell these campaigns freaked my parents out, because every time our home tournament came around and DIFD came up, my parents would ask me if I was suicidal. I always said no, and that was pretty much the extent of our mental health conversations.

As a happy little kid, suicide seemed like such a severe manifestation of mental illness. I didn’t understand the relation it had to my own life.

I’d overlooked how the nuances of mental health and mental illness affected the people closest to me—including myself.


When I came to Queen’s, I never thought I’d end up majoring in psychology.

In high school, I loved math and science. I assumed I would spend my years at university solving math problems and learning about the behaviour of molecules. I didn’t expect my psychology elective in first year to compel me to put away my beloved calculator and learn about the complexities of the human experience.

I was largely unaffected by my psychology class until the week on attachment theory came around. We learned how  your relationship to your parents can determine how you connect to other people.

I can still remember doing the online module in the middle of Stauffer library with my thoughts racing, feeling like the sky was crumbling around me.

My therapist would call this catastrophizing.

I ended up lost on the road somewhere between grief and feeling like I was betraying my parents. On one hand, I was mad that I’d felt so alone as a kid. On the other, I’d gained an enormous amount of sympathy for what my parents were going through in their own lives.

Above all, I didn’t want my loneliness to last forever. I was terrified I would be a bad partner who was callous and incapable of loving other people.

Even after majoring in psychology for the past three years, nothing has described anxiety and depression to me better than the bogarts and dementors in Harry Potter.

The dementors in the Harry Potter novels, described as a gripping coldness that can sneak up on us when we’re stressed or alone, are used as metaphor for depression. Bogarts are a personification of anxiety and take on the form of our deepest fears.

While academic discourse can make it feel like characteristics of anxiety and depression exist as isolated personality traits, Harry Potter illustrates how anxiety and depression deftly weave themselves into our lives.

I didn’t realize anxiety could manifest as a fear of being alone or that depression would feel like being submerged in my own fears with no way out.

I thought my feelings were cold, hard facts about myself and the people around me.

The more I learned about psychology, the more I felt inadequate. I had a compulsive feeling that I needed to fix myself, and I used a combination of my psychology notes and self-help books to try to fine-tune my personality.

Fueled by introspection and perfectionism, I started to go down a rabbit hole.  Before long, I found myself feeling alone in a harsh world.


The summer after my first year at Queen’s, I worked at a sleep-away camp. For the first week of the summer, we ran a leadership program where we trained a handful of 13- to 14-year-old kids to volunteer with us.

Each night, my cabin co-leader and I would come up with a few questions for the girls in our cabin to get to know each other.

Throughout the week, I learned these kids were good friends to each other during activities. They asked insightful questions in our leadership discussions, and one of them was the valedictorian of their middle school graduating class.

On one of the last nights, someone asked the question, “What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?”

Everyone sat up a little straighter in their sleeping bags and tried to see each other’s faces in the dim, lantern-lit cabin.

“Watching my parents get divorced,” one of them said.

“Living with anxiety.”

When it was my turn I said, “Growing up while my mom struggled with mental illness.”

After spending hours stressing about my problems and worrying about what was wrong with me, the hardest thing I’ve ever lived through and what had “messed me up” connected me to those people.

I’d spent all year worrying I would never be enough for anybody, but when I opened up to this cabin full of pre-teen girls, my vulnerability gave them hope that they could be something in their brokenness.


No matter how much you fix yourself, your future spouse, children, and everyone else you meet will have baggage. To truly love anyone, you have to accept them for who they are, not just like them for all their good qualities—and that starts with yourself.

The summer I worked at camp, I met my first boyfriend. I loved him because he’d rather get to know the messiness of me than have a girlfriend who pretended to be perfect.

I worried I would be too much for anyone to hold, but I wasn’t. Being with him felt like we could put our respective baggage down for a minute and just take a breather.

I know I can come off as reserved and rigid, but I slowly started to trust and open up to him. My anxiety fluctuated between feeling like I was too much and not being enough, but over time, I learned to be still and open up.

I told him the deepest fears I had about myself. I found that when I said them out loud, a lot of my insecurities would fall flat and dissolve.

“Do you think I’m cold?” I asked him once.

“No, of course not. Why?”

“I don’t know, I just always thought I would be.”


Mental health doesn’t make you broken; it makes you human.

My psychology degree has taught me the most important thing you can do for your mental health is to have good relationships.

You don’t need to have everything together to be accepted by people, you just have to reach out, open up, and have compassion.

We live in a world where everyone is lonely and concerned about their appearance, and we hide the things that can connect us to other people.

We worry we’re not good enough, and we’re scared to show people who we are. But the more people I talk to, the more I realize everyone feels the same way.

We talk about fighting mental health stigma in our culture, but before we can address it on a societal level, we need to learn how to be gentle with ourselves.

Having compassion for myself gave me the space to let other people in, allow myself to be loved, and love them in return.

Rather than compulsively searching for answers when I was upset or scared, I learned to call people who cared about me and tell them about how I was feeling.

At the end of my second year, I called my aunt crying one day. She gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received.

“Go home to your family, Julia,” she told me. “You don’t have to do anything, just go home and let them love you.”


Mental health, Postscript, stigma

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