Your mental health matters

Why conversation and openness are crucial in living with depression

About a year and a half ago, just before I started my third year at Queen’s, my life changed dramatically. The black cloud of major depressive disorder spread over my life, so slowly and insidiously that I was unaware of its arrival for months.

A simple Google search for “depression” brings you a list of the classic symptoms—most of which I had.

But Google doesn’t tell you depression is an elusive illness—sneaking up on you quietly until you’re lost and unable to find a way out.

My depression began in June 2008. It was nine long months until I was forced to deal with what had consumed me.

As a student, it’s a huge challenge to recognize the development of a mental illness or mood disorder.

Students, especially at Queen’s, are busy, stressed, over-involved and sleep-deprived. It took me months to recognize my depression—most of my friends and classmates were experiencing stress, exhaustion and waning motivation just like me.

My other symptoms blended in, preventing me from distinguishing them from the usual stress students experience.

I couldn’t understand why it was suddenly so hard for me to cope with my workload, further fueling negative thoughts about myself.

Not knowing any other students who had openly dealt with depression, it was a foreign experience to me. As the year went on, my grades dropped, my dedication to my extra-curricular commitments faltered, I lost focus and my thoughts darkened.

Last March, I realized something was seriously wrong with me. At that point, my ability to cope with daily activities disintegrated to the point where I couldn’t do my schoolwork or anything else. I stopped getting out of bed in the morning.

One night, an emotional phone conversation with my mother made me realize what I was feeling wasn’t okay. The next morning I walked into LaSalle, followed the signs to the counselling service and asked for help.

That was the first step. Of the months of recovery that followed, that step was by far the most difficult. Throughout these few months, depression was the furthest explanation from my mind. I thought what I was experiencing was normal for students.

When I finally visited a crisis counselor at Health Counselling Disability Services, one of the first questions I asked was “Are these feelings normal?” The answer was a resounding no, echoed again and again by all the counsellors and doctors I saw in the weeks that followed.

Many cases of depression bring with them the feeling that happiness is impossible or undeserved, meaning sufferers don’t believe what they are experiencing can be changed.

Mood disorders can be treated if you get the help you need. What I needed was drug treatment, ongoing psychotherapy, healthy coping skills and a solid support system.

But every person’s path to wellness is different—there’s no formula for recovery, just as there isn’t a single form of any mental illness.

More than half of students with mental health issues don’t report them or seek help as last week’s front-page story in the Journal on mental health awareness said.

I attribute this to the discomfort people have about discussing mental illness, most of which comes from misinformation about what it is and who it happens to.

But these issues hit home for a lot of us: statistics say one in five Canadians will have a mental health problem at some point in their lives.

Being informed can help us prepare for when it happens to us or those around us.

Ever since I “came out” as living with depression, I’ve learned a lot more about the people in my life. Friends have shared with me stories of their own battles with A.D.D., anxiety, manic-depression and eating disorders. Others have been there for me without judgment—which I appreciate more than they may realize.

By talking about it, we shared something very special that we might have missed altogether if I kept silent.

I’m not suggesting that everyone with mental health issues tell the whole world about their struggles. I’m saying we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about them.

Conversation and openness were crucial for my journey back to wellness and helped me feel more comfortable with what I was going through.

On a larger scale, community-wide dialogue is a necessary step in combating the silence that still surrounds these issues.

Life is different for me now. The most monumental change since last year is that I can feel joy again.

Depression drained me of hope and I have now found it again. In some ways, my illness was a blessing disguised as a curse—I’m so much more in touch with myself than I was in the past and I’m prepared to deal with anything that comes my way.

Every day brings challenges, but I’m armed to fight this battle with two key weapons: awareness of what’s going on inside of me and the strength to survive it.

Due to the sensitive nature of the article, the author's name has been removed as they wish to remain anonymous.

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