Opening up about my silent struggles with mental illness

Why I kept quiet about my experiences with anxiety and depression

Jonathan discusses the importance of breaking the mental health stigma.

Growing up, I was under the impression mental illness was the result of some trauma or difficult upbringing, leaving me safely unaffected. 

However, in grade 10, my doctor said I may have anxiety after I recovered from an 18-month-long undiagnosed stomach illness that led me to miss school. While it was intended to somewhat validate what I’d gone through, I had more questions about this potential diagnosis than answers. 

I struggled throughout my sickness and was sidelined from almost a full year of school. The thought that something like a stomach illness—which felt comparatively small—could bring about a mental disorder felt embarrassing, confusing, and wrong.

While I was initially skeptical of my diagnosis, the effects of my anxiety began to appear once I returned to high school the following year. I was overwhelmed by how much had changed academically and socially at a place I used to be so familiar with.

I was hyperaware of how frequently I heard my peers—and some adults—stating, “everyone has anxiety,” and you have to “suck it up.” I wish I had the courage to defend myself and others with anxiety; to make the clarification that while everyone may feel anxious at times, that’s not the same as suffering from an anxiety disorder. 

Instead, I resigned myself to listen to them.

I briefly tried seeing a psychotherapist, but when it didn’t pan out, I decided I could “suck it up” and treat the anxiety on my own.

Time went on, and my self-managed anxiety remained at a steady—though far from ideal—level. I eventually saw a new therapist, who officially diagnosed me with anxiety. 

I left this therapist as I prepared to move to Queen’s, though that had more to do with leaving Toronto than it did my mental state. 

I didn’t feel equipped to take on university with so much still on my plate, but I kept it to myself. The issue didn’t seem notable enough to warrant intervention.

I didn’t feel equipped to take on university with so much still on my plate, but I kept it to myself.

My first semester at Queen’s passed without any notable shifts in my mental health. I mistook that consistency with stability, making the false assumption everything was under control.

In second semester, my mental health turned for the worse. I blew off classes, skipped assignments, slept all the time, and distanced myself from several of my friends. The communication required to maintain friendships seemed too arduous to manage. 

While I knew my situation was worse than before, I only realized the severity of my poor mental health once I missed a deadline for an assignment worth 30 per cent of my final grade. I wasn’t even aware I had an assignment. 

Throughout this time, I tried to act as a strong figure to my friends struggling with their transition into university—while leaving my own struggles down at the bottom of my priorities.

Facing severe academic consequences, I finally got the nerve to share the extent of my anxiety with my parents, who’d previously been under the impression I was thriving in my new university environment. 

I called them, recounting everything that had happened since I moved to school. I went home the next day.

I wish I finally came to terms with what I was going through once I told my parents, but I still found myself lying to friends about the reason I left school. I blamed my absence on immovable, necessary follow-up appointments from my stomach illness three years prior. 

This trip home to Toronto, however, did kick off the next phase of battling my mental illness. My parents took me to a psychiatrist who promptly diagnosed me with depression and put me on anti-depressants. 

The rest of my first year still didn’t end the way any student would want it to. I never handed in the big assignment I’d forgotten about, and I had to make several phone calls to academic advisors in hopes they’d let me into the major I wanted despite my incomplete course. 

Once I received this diagnosis and all my academic issues got sorted out, I felt like I’d finally solved my problem. At the time, I seemed equipped to deal with depression and anxiety myself. 

My second year quickly proved how naïve I was to believe that telling someone what was wrong was the only step required for recovery. 

Despite a strong start to my semester, circumstances spiraled out of control again, leading to my parents returning to Kingston. I was forced to drop two courses and I’m still dealing with ramifications of the decision, retaking those courses now while my peers have moved forward in their degrees.

However, this time I had a more proactive response to my anxiety and depression. I spoke with a psychologist frequently to monitor my condition and looked for strategies to maintain good mental health, leading to almost daily calls home.

Not every day has been perfect since then, but I haven’t had a depressive episode in almost a year, and I finally have enough self-knowledge to know when I’m feeling off. I increased the dosage of my medication before beginning the current school year, and have access to a psychologist anytime I feel less stable than usual. 

Based on experience, it doesn’t take much to reach a low point. 

I’m cautiously optimistic about openness with friends and family, talking to my parents almost daily, and admitting to myself when something is wrong. 

I hope to take the necessary steps to get a grip on my mental state before I spiral out of control.

Admitting I needed so much help to get back on track, when it felt like nobody around me even missed a step when entering university, was without a doubt the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to come to terms with throughout this experience. 

Looking back, I can see all the opportunities I had to reach out and ask for help without judgment. 

In my lowest points, I didn’t feel like I could ever regain control of my life. But each time I reached out and took a step in the right direction, I've found my friends, family, and professors supporting me. They simply needed to know there was a problem before they could offer a solution.

As we conclude Mental Health Awareness Week, I believe it’s important to note mental illness is  an illness. Period. 

A large part of breaking the stigma surrounding mental illness is reinforcing this consistently and affectively. Nobody would treat strep throat by lying in bed and telling themselves that it’ll get better by itself. 

People struggling with mental illness aren’t weak. We must open ourselves to help and offer support for those close to us, so that anyone struggling feels comfortable enough to speak up when they need assistance.

We must open ourselves to help and offer support for those close to us, so that anyone struggling feels comfortable enough to speak up when they need assistance.

I wish I had.

If anyone with mental health struggles of their own is reading this, I hope my story is a reminder your feelings are valid and deserve to be heard, whether or not you live a privileged life. 

There are so many people and resources available to help cope with mental health issues in the world. All it takes is opening up to finding them.

Anyone in need of support is encouraged to contact Student Wellness Services at (613)-533-6000 ext. 78264 and/or the University Chaplain Kate Johnson at (613)-533-2186. After hours, students can contact Campus Security at (613)-533-6733.

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