The IMPACT Project: Melanie Muto – The Creative

Melanie Muto is a graphic designer, who has used her creative talent and ability to express her journey with mental health. We met while interning for Jack.org and immediately hit it off. She brings a fresh perspective, and can see the little details with ease. I am amazed by the way in which she works with her mental health, and uses it to her advantage with her creative pieces, as opposed to allowing it to be a hindrance.


“Working With My Mental Health. Not Against It”

My sixteen-year-old self would barely understand this concept. The only idea of “health” for her was eating decent food and somehow getting “perfect” grades (which was probably the start of all this).

I took a walk yesterday and found my mind wandering to a very familiar place, where a group of negative and hypothetical thoughts were closely knit in a very complex web of insecurity. It’s like some type of rapidly moving daydream, except you don’t just “snap out of it”.

You (well I) tell yourself that you’re breathing. You’re alive. And you’re strong.

You talk back to your thoughts, because you finally know how they work, rather than trying to permanently erase something about you.

Coming to terms with my mental health was not easy. It took therapy, a huge support system of amazing people who helped me reach out shamelessly, and my own courage to accept a mind that likes to work in a certain, unique way.

Oh, and it also took a small period of avoiding my mental health all together because not feeling much was “easier”. What was perceived as a state of calm was more of a lingering numb, fuelled by the fear that I’d trigger a harmful, uncontrollable mindset again.

I found myself in the same state of feeling embarrassed to admit a period of depression in my life, thinking people would shame me for falling back to “old ways”, as if I ran a race backwards or something.

But the support system reminded me of their compassion, and I learned that I was always running a race, and that it wouldn’t really ever come to a “finale”. What do I mean by this? I mean that I was always waiting for some over-arching moment, where I’d wake up and everything would be “fixed”. I’d be all smiles and never have to face a sudden period of sadness again.

There wasn’t and probably will never be an over-arching moment – I am always changing and there will always be a battle to overcome. Oh, and I will always have mental health.

Coming to terms with the way I think and knowing that my thought processes have the potential to trigger states of anxiety or sadness was actually liberating. Yes. Liberating.
I’ve become excited to learn about myself. To realize why I suddenly become down, and discover what brings me back up.

I’ve grown to want to learn about others more. To be inspired by their story, their decisions, them.

Conversations with my friends and family about their mental health have become less of a “I’m not embarrassed or ashamed” (that feeling is long gone) and more of a “I want to encourage others to be happy, and meet their own goals.”

I want to see others get better and take care of themselves, and I want to be an example for them. Yes, I could give all the advice with my past experiences, which helps too, but I can also inspire others through my actions and everyday decisions. I use “inspire” because everyone is different. Some people hate walks, and some people don’t prefer a comforting tub of ice cream. But I know that everyone likes a little (or big) dose of encouragement – the type that tells you:

a: people give a fuck,
b: you got this, and
c: self-care is not selfish.

– Mel

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The IMPACT Project: Kate Wallace

I’ve known Kate Wallace for about four years, and despite hating me when she first met me, we’re now great friends. Without knowing it, Kate and I had very similar experiences dealing with our mental health in school, and trying to juggle being a high-functioning over-achiever with feeling like most things were impossible. She was one of the first people I called when I thought I would be getting ECT, and dropped what she was doing to meet up and talk me through it. That’s who Kate is – even when things aren’t going well for her, she will always show up to be there for someone else. She was there to take notes for me in classes, help me with my assignments, and have fun wine nights. She’s got a great story to tell, and I think everyone can learn a thing or two from her – she tells it like it is and isn’t afraid to shed light on some of the uglier parts of her story.


When Ameera asked me to contribute to her blog I was grateful. I have been meaning to start writing as one of my new years resolutions. I always find that writing out the jumble of thoughts in my head helps me find clarity on what I am feeling and why.  As a result it strengthens my ability to communicate and interact with the people in my life.

I am however, the queen of procrastination. I always feel I’m too busy to write. Too busy watching my weekly line up of crime shows and napping that is. So this invitation lit a fire under my ass. I told her I probably wouldn’t have a chance to start writing about the impact of my mental health on how I live my life until next week. However, within two minutes I was mulling how I would begin, reflecting and recalling memories, trying to figure out how to phrase feelings. I was consumed by the topic in the shower, on the chairlift, over quiet moments at dinner and in bed.

The opportunity had created a frenzy in my brain, the topic had become all-consuming. So a day later, overwhelmed by the pages (tangents) being written on the inside of my forehead, I took to the keyboard. But after half an hour of flying fingers – writing, deleting, writing deleting – I was exhausted. Writing this down gives me anxiety, and I started to get to the hard stuff. An introduction of quips, niceties and similes had been written and now I really had to start digging in to the impact that mental health had, has and will always have on my life. So I shut the laptop, popped half a clonazepam, took off my bra and tried to deep breathe myself out of a panic attack and into a nap.

And then I pretty much let the word doc sit for two months. Every once in a while when I couldn’t sleep and felt like I’d found the right words to convey what I’ve felt I’d open my laptop and jot down the phrases, and then close her back up again.

I was scared to sit down and dig deep, I was scared to over think it. Forever, frustrated that I never felt I’d found the right words to make people understand in past conversations. I always find I came across cliché or dramatic. I was having to face the fact that I can’t make others understand when a lot of days I myself can’t fully wrap my head around it all. I often still don’t understand how a good day turns to bad in a blink of an eye, how confidence erodes exponentially into insecurity or how I can feel calm about everything around me and somehow a panic attack is triggered.

Those closest to me have heard me talk on this topic openly a number of times. However, I often avoid acknowledging my mental health in public or professional platforms and situations if I can help it. I am still grappling with how to do this “properly” – but this is as good of a place as any to get my feet wet… or dip my toes in at least.

In a lot of ways suffering from a mental illness is what I imagine being an addict is like. I am constantly at risk of relapsing; forever in “recovery”. I modify my medication and my behaviour to manage my symptoms. There are good days and bad days and with the bad days the desire to indulge in a variety of unhealthy habits or thoughts arise.

For me anxiety is like an itch that spreads through my body, and I just cant stop scratching. Making it worse.

For me, panic disorder is like being out for a routine swim and all of sudden swallowing water as I’m being pulled under a wave. I know I’m going to be alright – I can swim, and the swell will pass, the water really isn’t that deep, and I love the Ocean. But still I flail and my body thinks it’s drowning even though my brain knows it’s only a painfully elongated moment in time.

For me depression is exhaustion, numbness, an aching paralyzer, a reappearing stranger; my alter ego. In the past, depression had played a starring role in life.  These days it’s less of an antagonist. Depression has become a symptom of my anxiety and panic attacks when they make me feel completely out of control of my own body.

Maybe you feel the same. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you know somebody who does.

My mental health impacts my life in so many ways, far too many to include in a single blog post. But some of the most prevalent or obvious ways are the physical symptoms of anxiety, depression and panic disorder. Not to mention the bonus brutal side effects that accompany the different medications I have tried to curb the overall effects of my mental disorders.

I think these so called ‘symptoms’ are an important place to start – because it helps you understand a person with mental health disorder’s physical struggles and limitations. It may also help you recognize when someone is struggling with a disorder, or struggling with side effects of the medications they’re trying to get their disorder under control.

For me the forefront physical and mental struggle I face is pure exhaustion. For the last 4 years I have had a really hard time accepting my fatigue and lack of energy, and an even harder time conveying it to others. I often hear: “go to bed earlier”, “have you eaten enough, have you eaten the right things?”, “just grab another coffee”.

In grade school I was your classic overachiever. I was often out of the house for 12+ hours, between early morning advanced classes, multiple after school sports practices or games, study groups and volunteering. I would then come home and do homework and text my friends late into the night. I would do all this on 6 hours of sleep, and rally the next day to do it all again. When I was in grade 11 and 12 I would sometimes take naps in my car during spares – but most days I didn’t pause. My body seemed to be able to handle anything, everything.

That is in stark contrast to how I felt during university and how I feel today. The energizer bunny that once was, is no more. Energy is a very finite resource in my life.  In my first years of university I suffered from insomnia – between the loud dorm-mates and thin walls, stress of school, late nights studying and my racing mind – I was regularly up at all hours, sleeping between and through classes. My last years of school, and more recently, I slept like a baby. I came home defeated and dead at the end of the day, sleeping 8 hours and never having it be enough.

I always hoped having a routine as a summer intern (then), and as a young professional (now), would help this. It hasn’t. Standard bed times and routine start times hasn’t eased the energy reserve supply. You know when you wake up with a really bad head cold or an achy flu coming on – how before you even open your eyes your body is protesting, alerting you that today is going to be hard to get through physically? That’s how I feel 90% of my mornings.

Now to add to this sleeping struggle, common side effects of starting or tapering off anti-depressants or anxiety medication (most medication can be used for either disorder) includes night sweats and nightmares. Sometimes these symptoms extend beyond the initial transition periods. A medication I was on years ago woke me up at least twice a night drenched in sweat.  Turned out my birth control and this anxiety medication weren’t interacting well together. This past fall I started on a new medication. A side effect was night sweats and night terrors. I had the most vivid and disturbing nightmares of my entire life. I could recount most of them to you still. They were so bad they would induce panic attacks in my sleep. I would wake up unable to breathe, exhausted and sweaty af.

Other common side effects that accompany these types of meds that I have experienced at one time or another are are headaches, dizziness, fatigue, insomnia and loss of appetite.  I literally had a doctor say “Common side effect of this pill is fatigue, so don’t take it during the day. But you don’t want to take it at night either because it also causes insomnia”…. Great. OK. So…?

In the last year I started to suffer from panic attacks. Occasionally, they would develop from standard anxiety or discomfort (stress from a long to-do list, cramped on a night bus in a foreign country). Most often, they would come on out of nowhere – driving home on a highway I’ve traveled my whole life, excited to see friends, family and attend a festival I go to every year. One time, it hit right before my favourite band was about to come on stage. Another time, laying down for a nap when I had nothing else I should’ve been doing.

The attacks would make me instantly nauseous. I had difficulty breathing – like someone was sitting on my chest. I’d start to sweat, become light headed and feel faint. Feeling out of control and overwhelmed my mind would race. Sometimes they would last 20 minutes, other times 5 hours. In general, I’d like to think I am pretty laid back, easy going and logical. I knew I wasn’t in any immediate danger, I knew everything was fine or going to fine, that this would pass. And yet… Feeling out of control of your own body and thoughts is the most frustrating part of any mental disorder.

In the face of an attack I’d often become compulsive – convince that only one thing could calm me down and I needed to drop everything to do it (bye bye logic…). These remedies include but are not limited to: driving to buy a new note book to write about the attack, picking up and driving in search of a specific comfort food, buying a new pair of shoes, and reorganizing my entire closet. The worst part (or maybe the best) is these self-identified and indulgent solutions usually did ease my mind. Giving myself a mission – putting the blinders up and not letting my mind continue to run wild – did calm me down, and brought me simple pleasures.

I hope this blog makes you feel less alone, more “normal” if you suffer from similar symptoms. I hope that if you are lucky enough to be mentally healthy that this helps you and identify loved ones who may be struggling with their own mental health. Since I have talked a lot about medication and accompanying side effects I’d like to take a moment to highlight an issue that I think can be overlooked or misunderstood by individuals and in our community and social circles. That is the combination of mental health, medication and alcohol.

It’s important to note that certain medications for anxiety and depression such as Prozac, Clonazepam and Xanax can be highly addictive and also may mix very poorly with alcohol. As a young adult it can be really hard to avoid drinking in social settings. It is important to be vigilant about this combination if you yourself are on similar medications or if you notice erratic, unusual or harmful behaviour by someone in your social group under the influence of alcohol. The world is a better place when we recognize and support each other’s issues, and exercise compassion.

A common phrase you hear when dealing with illness or a disability is “you are not your illness/disability”. Personally, I disagree. I am more than jut my anxiety, panic disorder and bouts of depression. However, it is a huge part of who I am. My ‘disorders’ impact my thoughts, my physical abilities, my behaviour, my decision-making, my relationships, my habits and nuances. As a result they are very much a part of me – engrained and influencing my personality and my actions on a daily basis. It is not easy, and it is not ideal, but it has been an important and integral part of growing into and loving myself.

 

 

The IMPACT Project: Wendy Vaz

Wendy is a little ball of light. She spreads joy and happiness everywhere she goes, and I can’t think of a single time she didn’t put a smile on the face of the person she was interacting with. She is funny, she is sweet, she is strong, and she is thoughtful. I met her when we worked together on our undergraduate society’s marketing team – we bonded over our passion for blogging, and she supported all of my mental health initiatives, even showing up for a 5k run in the pouring rain.

Her story is heart breaking, honest, and vulnerable, but it also serves as a reminder that the human spirit is powerful, and can endure the toughest times. 


When Ameera first asked me to be a part of the Impact Project, I said yes without hesitating. I love the initiative. I love how her blog opens the eyes of many about mental illnesses, I want to inspire others with my story, of course I do. Little did I know that I was going to be sucked into the black hole again just a week after I said yes. This time, I drowned in depression for longer than a month. I couldn’t bring myself to function on a daily basis. I was surrounded by darkness. I couldn’t see the light. How was I going to share about my “survival story” and inspire others?

There’s a dent in my heart. It felt like someone pierced through my heart with a knife, except in this case, it was pierced by sheer nothingness. I didn’t understand why. I was surrounded by people, I was engaging in conversations, but the space around me still seem so bleak and empty. Dark water was gushing into my soul. I felt alone. Lonelier than ever. I knew that it’s coming again…

It has been 3 years since depression first hit me. It stemmed from a sexual assault on my 21st birthday. Throughout the following 2 years of university in Canada, counsellors, therapies, fitness lifestyle changes and my close friends helped me get by my self-hatred, self-pity, and self hurting actions.

Like Ameera, I was a good actress. Putting on a bright, teethy smile comes naturally to me especially when I’m in front of others. As my family was 8000 miles away in Malaysia, I avoided mentioning anything about the assault or mental illness on social media. I didn’t want them to worry, and I really wanted to graduate from university without having to spend time at home. As a result, not many know of my suffering, only the close or chosen ones know.

It wasn’t easy putting on a mask for the public while trying to be honest with myself about depression. I would drain up all my energy being around people and go home feeling like a spineless slug. There was a lot of confusion about my identity. I’d feel strong and fragile. I’d feel proud and meek. I’d feel as if I don’t know myself.

I lied on my bed, drowned in the vortex of pain and fear, wishing someone could pull me up.

I don’t see a difference in being dead or alive. Aren’t they just different stages of life? Like a party, it’s completely fine to leave early if you’re tired or sick of it. Why struggle so hard to stay when you don’t enjoy the party?

This was my first time having depression in Malaysia. I moved back from Canada to work in a city that I barely knew, my family was back in my hometown and I was living by myself. I understood the risk of relapse and got myself mentally prepared for what was coming – I signed up for a gym membership to keep myself physically fit, I learned meditation to keep myself mentally in tact, I asked friends out to keep myself socially active, I joined a new church to keep myself spiritually strong… Yet, I still felt that hollow, dark force flowing through my veins.

Then, I started experiencing physical symptoms. I started developing an allergy in which I still haven’t found the cause. I would joke to myself and say that perhaps I’m just allergic to living. I started having migraine every time I was facing multiple stressors or when I was angered. I felt sleepy and lethargic every day no matter how much I slept, which caused me to just work and go home doing nothing every day; and all I had in my mind was all the negative thoughts that can’t seem to go away.

You want to know what depression is like? It’s like dementors are under my bed, pulling me in and sucking my soul, my joy, my energy, my spirit to live on.

It took me a while to seek professional help because social stigma associated to mental illnesses is still huge in Malaysia. I was afraid of being misunderstood or a disgrace to my family. I didn’t know if I could afford treatment without healthcare, and if my employer is going to cut me out for it. Opening up to my sister pushed me to get help, and I definitely don’t regret doing so.

I chose to meet a psychiatrist instead of a counsellor or psychologist, and it felt weird when I was finally, officially diagnosed by a doctor and given medication. I knew that was what I needed despite knowing the potential side effects of antidepressants. I started off with mild dose of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) and increased the dosage eventually. The side effects hit me hard initially, I was constantly drowsy, nauseous, and I had this weird symptom that made me yawn excessively to the point my jaw hurts. It’s weird, I know. And because it usually takes about 1-2 months for the drug to be effective, I actually felt way worse when I started medication.

As the side effects subside and my brain got used to the chemicals, probably 3-4 weeks after, I started feeling better. I never knew a simple task like doing my laundry can give me such amount of satisfaction until the day I did my first load of laundry after having it piled up for a month. You can only imagine how messy and dirty my room was. I also finally opened up to my parents (about depression, not sexual assault, I’m not ready for that yet), who were really calm and understanding, and they supported my decision to quit my job and rest for a bit.

A lot had happened in the past few months – I started SSRIs, opened up about depression, quitted my job, moved back home, and now I’m sitting here reflecting about it. The first two weeks of joblessness had been good to me. I started doing things that I was passionate of but stopped doing – blogging, reading, and making YouTube videos. My 10-year-old niece told me she’s happy that I’m smiling more than 50 times a day now (she noticed I’ve been smiling too much lately, and started counting). Having a huge downfall allowed me to appreciate all the simple, little things and it inevitably made me appreciate life even more.

It may sound like good news that I’m recovering and feeling better, but it’s not really a happily ever after. Last week, I met up with a friend who does insurance for coffee, and was told that because of my record in the Psychiatry department, there is a high likelihood that my application to sign up for a medical card would be rejected. I was also warned by an ex-colleague to not let Human Resources know about my depression, because it’s worse than having “underperforming” on my employment file. There’s only so much money I have to support myself while being jobless. Soon I’ll have to stress about my career again, and I think it will be harder looking for my next job than before.

I actually had a choice to go back to Canada to work, but I chose to stay back and fight the social stigma instead. If I, a privileged girl who has a Bachelor with Honours degree from abroad can’t fight with the stigma, how are those who are not so lucky dealing with it? I want to start the conversation in Southeast Asia or even Asia, to let those who are inflicted with mental illnesses know that it is a disease that can be treated, that they have options and are not alone. It’s not going to be an easy journey, but I know this is the choice that will make my life fulfilled. Ameera has definitely played a huge role in inspiring me to do this, and I can’t thank her enough for being the strong and brave soul that she is.

So… To answer the question, how did depression really impact me… Well, when I was severely depressed, I couldn’t see the light in living. I felt powerless, helpless and hopeless. But after I opened up and accepted the fact that I am sick and not weak, I found myself on the journey to recovery. It made me realize that I’m never alone in this, that there is light at the end of the tunnel and it IS possible to get there. I can be fragile and strong at the same time. Yes, I may have a lower stress threshold now; yes, I may be socially disadvantaged because of the stigma; yes, I may be depending on pills every single day; but I fought the desire to end my life and I’m still standing tall – how can that not make me strong?

Thank you so much for reading till the end. I hope it helps you a little in understanding how depression is like for me. I’ll keep you updated about my journey in defeating mental illness stigma in Asia, and I’ll end this post with one more quote from my journal when I was severely depressed:

I used to think hell is filled with fires and flames and it’s in the hue of red; but now I know it’s not. All that I’m going through is living hell, and there’s no flame at all. Not even a tiny spark.

I’ve been to hell and back, in fact I have a living hell suppressed in me, surely there’s nothing I can’t do right? 🙂

The IMPACT Project: Brittany Danishevsky – aka Kim Possible

Brittany Danishevsky is an avid advocate for mental health; an active member of Guelph’s Jack.org chapter, a Jack Talks speaker, a Jack Summit alum, and a two-time Jack.org intern. Aside from speaking about her own mental health and how to take care of it openly in front of large audiences, she is also a master of starting conversations on a smaller scale, which often have a greater impact. Brittany and I met while interning at Jack.org, and I always admired how she somehow managed everything- while she was carefully working on fundraising initiatives, I was playing with the office turtle. I’ve learned a ton from Britt, and am so glad we can always say we’re part of the #dreamteam.


“Show me your friends, and I will show you who you are”

Did your parent ever use this saying to stop you from playing with the troublesome kids on the playground? Mine did. It worked.

Though I did have a couple of troublesome moments. Like in first grade, I pantsed a guy on the playground, in second grade, I had friends in the eighth grade, and in third grade, my friends and I spent a recess in the middle-school area of the field because we were checking out a haunted house (read: broken wooden shed in an unkept backyard adjacent to the school). Pretty badass, I know.

Today, my badass creds include possibly saving your life.

Don’t believe me? Well…

I’m an airplane vigilante. I insist on sitting in the emergency row on a plane – not for the leg room – but because I am READY for the responsibility. I will gladly put my bags overhead, and resist any desire to bring them down, even for a minute, because those rows MUST be clear. I listen to every word that flight attendant tells me, and even take my earphones out for the video. I’ve also become quite skilled at reading the flight attendant’s eyes, so I’ll be the first to inform you if they are lying about the turbulence being “normal” and we are actually plummeting down into the ocean. I’ve even mentally rehearsed how I would put on my oxygen mask – first my own, and then yours, of course. Yep, you might as well call me Kim Possible; I’m your basic average girl, and I’m here to save the world (I have red hair, so this reference is particularly relevant).

Oops, I mean, I’m your basic anxious girl, and I’m here to save the world. Think Kim Possible actions, with Ron Stoppable thoughts and concerns.

In all seriousness, anxiety is helping me save the world… but not entirely due to my airplane safety skillz. My anxiety, well actually, being open about my anxiety, has helped me impact my friends, my family, and even strangers in the most meaningful ways.

Being open about mental illness is really hard, and awkward, and uncomfortable. Admitting that mental illness was a thing in my life was incredibly difficult because of the stigmatizing thoughts ingrained in my psyche. I believed mental illness replaced academic success, extroversion, dance trophies and party invites. It’s taken me many years to get to a point where I recognize that these things can co-exist. Though, I must admit, that my ability to whole-heartedly accept this truth cycles depending on how successful I feel, or how debilitating my anxiety is at that moment. Stigma sucks, and I imagine that just like my anxiety, it will be something I will struggle with for many years to come.

A couple of years ago I began to discover the antidote to stigma. Conversations. As a mental health advocate, I tell people to have conversations about mental health all the time. I ask people how they’re doing, what they’re feeling, I facilitate ‘aha’ moments when someone realizes the parallels between mental and physical health. The conversations I have as an activist don’t often get too personal; the students I stop while they run to the bus on my university campus, won’t often unload what struggles they’re currently pushing through. My hope is that they’ll feel comfortable talking about those battles with someone they trust, after they’ve heard my shpeil about normalizing mental health conversations. Though I’d like to think I’m pretty skilled at getting other people to have those conversations, I definitely forgot to have them myself.

That is until I interned at Jack.org three summers ago.

I was surrounded by over-achievers like myself – who loved brainstorming, implementing great ideas, and ice-coffee. We called ourselves the #dreamteam.

Though I knew that we all had some connection to mental illness, it took a while before our stories came out. It took a while before we had those conversations.

And then, we got more comfortable, and the conversations began to happen. As a group, one on one. While getting ice coffee, while in the elevator, or at the bar after work. We talked about our struggles in high school, what it felt like to panic at work and try to hide it, how we balance our self stigma with our perceptions of our own success, how we aim for goals and deal with failures as a result of mental illness that we sometimes forget we have. We talked about our parents, and our friends, and the stigmatizing things they’ve said, and the stigmatizing things that we’ve said because we’re not perfect. We’ve even talked (and laughed) about the ridiculous things we do because of anxiety, like insisting on sitting in the emergency aisle of the airplane.

We talked about mental illness as if it was a normal thing in our daily lives; because frankly, that’s exactly what it is.

I will be forever thankful for these friends, because they made me feel normal sharing something that stigma made me feel so abnormal for. I am thankful that they allowed me to just chill out, even laugh at some of the thoughts that the lack of serotonin in my brain conjures up.

Because of the #dreamteam, it’s become easier to have these conversations with other people close to me. If I make this conversation normal with the people I love in my life, my loved ones will have no choice but to do the same; and they have. I am grateful that when I see a relatable meme about anxiety, I don’t just scroll past – I can send it to friends who will also relate to it, knowing that even though we are laughing together now, we will always be there for one another when things need to be more serious.

So today, when my mom tells me “Show me your friends, and I will show you who you are”

She will show me that I am not abnormal, that I am loved, and that my mental illness doesn’t change my over achieving nature. She will show me that perhaps I really can save the world, or at the very least, make the world of the people around me a little easier to be in.

Because I will show her, the #dreamteam.

 

 

 

 

 

The IMPACT Project: Natasha Karim – Mental Health Professional

Natasha Karim is a Registered Psychologist in BC and helps people every day through some of the toughest times in their lives. When I first launched The IMPACT Project, I knew having the perspective of a mental health professional would be invaluable, and Tash was the perfect candidate. I met her almost seven years ago when she was a Youth Counselor at my religious education classes. Over the years, we became friends and she was there for me throughout college, making me dinner or taking me for lunch, and helping me find my own voice as a part of the local mental health advocacy community. We later presented to a group of university students – her as a professional, and myself as a person with lived experience. Her thoughtfulness, kindness, and ability to listen without judging makes me certain she’s in the right field.


In my work as a mental health professional I have had the privilege of meeting clients who have been through several traumas, stressors, and crises which manifest as depression, anxiety, self-doubt, addiction or trauma related disorders. I consider myself very lucky to be doing the work that I do because I learn lessons from my clients every day. Each day I learn about strength, coping, resilience, hardship, loss, and healing. A central theme I have learnt over the years is that “Man has never made a material more resilient than the human spirit”~ Anonymous.

I have my own battles with anxiety, bouts of depression, and periodic feelings of intense self- doubt.  What makes working in the mental health field a protective factor for me is that in my work I also have the opportunity to reflect on my own mental health, take inventory of my emotions, and attempt to apply the skills to promote personal mental wellbeing. What I know is that keeping ourselves mentally healthy is hard work, but it is also necessary to live a fulfilling life in which we can reach our full potential.

Many say that people who work in the mental health field are drawn to the work because of their own lived experience with mental illness or because of familial experiences with mental illness or trauma. I personally went into the field wanting to learn more about what gets people through such hardships. What is it that makes us resilient, gives us the ability to survive hurts, loss, and injustice?

The main lesson I have learnt from diverse clients, in a variety of settings I have worked in is that resilience is for everyone.  As Ann Masten, Professor in Clinical Psychology notes, “resilience does not come from rare and special or extreme qualities or processes. Resilience develops from everyday magic of ordinary resources. Resilience is not a sign of exceptional strength, but a fundamental feature of normal, everyday coping skills.” First off, what is resilience? Merriam Webster defines it as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” I understand resilience to be growth in the face of adversity.

I have also learnt that there are many paths and steps to cultivate the resilience within us. The direction we take looks different for each of us, based on our unique needs and experiences. The same things which encourage growth and the ability to “bounce back” are also factors that promote mental wellbeing.

  • Availability of social relationships and the ability to reach out to, and access these social supports: When we are in difficulty we find it hard to reach out to others. We may want to isolate, to hide, or disappear- fight these urges! In a vulnerable state it takes a lot of courage to reach out, but once this step has been taken reaching out brings relief, it opens the door to honest conversations, to acceptance and mutual understanding. It is important to reach out to the people who you identify as supportive and helpful so that the request for support is met with empathy and respect rather than judgment or conflict. If you find that there is no one in your life that understands reach out to the crisis line, seek professional support and counselling, and begin to ask, “What can I do to develop supportive relationships with others?”
  • Take a super hero stance: Begin to entertain the idea that you are a survivor and a hero in your own story: Own your powers, whatever those may be. Are you kind and generous? Are you analytic? Are you punctual? Loyal? Begin to look for the evidence which supports your strengths in your daily life.
  • Remember that “emotions are normal, honourable and confirm your humanity” ~anonymous: Acknowledging the necessity of negative emotions and finding ways to enhance positive emotions can fuel resiliency. Making use of mindfulness, journaling, daily mood logs and apps such as “moodlytics or moodtracker” can help us be aware of our emotional states, think of a mood log as a Fitbit for your mental health.
  • Taking care of the body strengthens resilience: Self-care starts with the foundations of sleep, nutrition, exercise, and regular medical check-ups. Health related behaviours and physical fitness are imperative in healing and to supplement changes made in the psychological realm.
  • Spiritual connection as a way of making meaning and creating a sense of belongingness: Many are skeptical when discussing spirituality and the role of spirituality in supplementing resilience or improving mental health. It is important to remember that spirituality is different than religiosity. The word spirituality is actually derived from the Latin word “spirale” which means to breathe! One can participate in spiritual wellness without formally engaging in religious activities. For some, mindfulness, time in nature, faith in a higher power or connection to community/ culture can be ways of being spiritual. Having a practice of gratitude can also act as a reminder of spirituality.

 

The IMPACT Project: Zahra Premji – The Reporter

Zahra Premji is a reporter with Global News and has worked around Canada telling some of the nation’s most hard-hitting stories. Today, she shares the story of how working in an industry that requires her to be so “on” all the time has impacted her mental health. She also happens to be a close family friend, and was the reporter who did a story on Surviving by Living soon after it’s launch (the same story that was then shared by Bell Let’s Talk). She understands the power of storytelling and bravely shares a candid story about the challenges that come with her career.


“Don’t worry about what you look like, it’s about what’s on the inside, be happy with what God gave you.”

I remember growing up hearing these words, but not all of them rang true when I jumped feet first into my career that I had been dreaming about since I was five years old: a news reporter on one of Canada’s top news networks.

Before I start, let me warn you. There’s no flow, no proper sentence structure, and no rhyme or reason as to why one paragraph has been placed after the other. I’m a scattered storyteller and I want to share as much as I can with you, so I’m going to bounce all over the place.

My career choice was simple…or so I thought. I wanted to be a storyteller and no one could tell me otherwise. What I didn’t know was that a) I WOULD be judged on my appearance, b) I would receive nasty comments online by trolls, and c) I would see things and experience things that are beyond what the mind can often comprehend. The scariest part is, I’m just getting started. 10 years in to this business, I’ll have seen 100 times more than what I already have today, and I don’t know how my brain will even begin to process that.

Many people, maybe not all, but yes many, think a television reporter comes on TV to talk and read a teleprompter, and then they’re off and they call it a day. What some may not realize is that the anxiety, the stress, and the constant need to be in the know starts well before that. I come into work and most days I don’t know what my story will be and where it will take me. I’ve done stories on mosquitos, I’ve done stories on homeless tent camps where someone found my presence threatening and shoved me to the ground, and I’ve done a story that took me inside the home of a convicted sex offender. As journalists, we’ve all done this. What I think gets forgotten is that our jobs actually involve a different side of reality.

Speaking of reality…the reality of life is that you can’t always be “on.” But, as a journalist, I often need to turn OFF my emotions and personal opinions, and turn ON my charm and your strength. Or just fake it until I make it. I know I’m not the only one that’s come in to work extremely sick, or feeling low after a break up, or having a bad day, but just had to turn it on anyway. When you’re in front of a camera, or about to interview the mayor or premier, that “on” switch is a little more crucial. However, being on so often definitely has its impact on my mental well-being. Once you’re on for so long, it’s often hard to turn off. And with that comes a jittery feeling as a result of always being connected through both my phones, through my computer, through my camera man’s phone at times, through emails, social media, and more.

But then there is the part I have to turn off. Imagine going into a sex offender’s home, being in their bedroom, seeing their things, and breathing the same air. For some, perhaps that’s nothing, perhaps that isn’t going to impact your mental state. But for me, when I had to do that I was shaking while walking in. But I didn’t let that side of me show. Did I need a drink after that? Yes. I’m not saying alcohol is the problem solver for calming you down after a true play on your mental state like that. In fact, it’s probably the complete worst thing to turn to, but at the same time I know you’ve heard it: journalists make good alcoholics. If I had a dollar for every time I left my newsroom hearing someone say, “oh wow, I need a drink (or ten) after this day,” I’d be rich, not working, and living in Europe! Just saying…

Whether I realize it or not, my job truly impacts my mental state in a very weird way. I love being surrounded by friends and family, and going on adventures all the time. But the longer I’ve been in this business, the more I’ve realized how much I value solo time and reflective time. That’s a direct connection to my mental health. I have to take those moments after a long day, a rough day, a busy day, to just breathe, or I don’t think I’ll make it to the next day. But that’s not always an option, and when that happens I just keep on swimming through until a break presents itself.

Everyone in journalism knows that for the most part, lunch breaks don’t really exist. I’ll get lucky if I have time to take a break, but that’s only if I’ve figured out my story, found interview subjects, filmed my interviews, written my story, had my story vetted, written my web post, and then prepared the shorter version of my story. Then maybe I’ll have time for a quick pee or a bite to eat. So I treasure the minutes I do have. Those are minutes to myself that I often need to breathe again, to recharge, and to gain energy to keep on trekking.

Imagine you were stuck in traffic because a fatal car crash blocked the highway. Imagine driving by that scene, closing your eyes for half a second, saying a little prayer, and swallowing your surroundings: the car mangled, flipped over, and police tape everywhere. Now think about what happens after. A family finds out they’ve just lost their loved one. How do you, as a viewer, find out what exactly happened? You turn on the news that evening and find out. That’s where I come in. It’s my job to visit the scene and to be there right away. If I’m “lucky” (I don’t consider myself lucky on this one), I’ll get there before the scene is cleared. I might even see the body under the tarp (yes, I’ve seen this before). I might even see a family member in tears on the sidewalk as they watch their loved one taken away in a body bag. That’s my day, that’s my job, that’s my role. To tell you what’s happened there and to get the “money shot” of the tears streaming down the families’ faces. That’s my job. I feel like a jerk every second of it, and an even bigger jerk when I have to walk up to that crying mother and say, “I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m from the news. Can I talk to you about your child that just died over there?”

It’s hard to turn off those emotions and I would definitely be lying if I said I’m the tough cookie I’m expected to be and that I haven’t cried while interviewing a mother who just lost her child. I’m a human being, and so are you. It’s important we take a moment to remember that fact, in whatever career path or life move we follow. Have I been told tears are a sign of weakness? Yep. Is it true? Nope. It shows that we can have empathy for the stories we are telling, and I believe that makes us better storytellers. It makes me go out there and be passionate and committed to the story I’m telling. But, does it hurt when I go home? A lot. Does my head spin so much I don’t want to talk to anyone and I start looking up the teen on Facebook that died in the fiery crash and go deep down the rabbit hole of their photos with friends and family? I have definitely done that and it has most definitely messed with my head. But, it’s important to remember that it isn’t just a story; it’s someone’s life and it’s real.

The other day, my coworker and I were just really sad and upset. We both knew why, and often many of us will just proceed with the day. But this time, we decided to talk it out. A missing person’s investigation we had both recently covered suddenly turned into a homicide investigation. A 21-year-old, dead. A 21-year-old we both thought might just come back home when she was ready. That’s heavy for anyone. We needed to acknowledge that and so we did. We teared up, we hugged, we talked about it, and we then proceeded to tell our story. It’s what we have to do to bring the stories to you, and it’s never easy. But, we choose to do it because our jobs expose us to an entirely different aspect of the world that many don’t have the privilege of experiencing.

Is my mental health impacted on a daily basis because of what I choose to wake up and do everyday? Of course! But, talking about it, preparing for the unknown (I know that sounds impossible), and being open to self assess after stories on how I’m doing is all part of keeping the mental health in check no matter what job I’m doing and what story I’ve been assigned to that day.

Mental health – it’s not a dirty word. It’s something we all need to take care of and I’ll admit it isn’t something I’ve always thought about. So, whether a journalist or a janitor, I make sure I keep mine in check because I’d be lying to myself  if I said what I do as a reporter on a daily basis doesn’t IMPACT how I feel or live each of my days.

 

The IMPACT Project: Karen Copeland – A “Perfectly Imperfect” Mom

Karen Copeland was one of my first blogging buddies. As the founder of Champions for Community Wellness and mother of two, she knows a ton about navigating the child and youth mental health system. I’ll never forget the valuable insight she gave me about what it means to be a parent, and opened my eyes to how my mental illness was actually impacting my entire family. After a long day at a training session, we sat in the hotel lobby with a drink in hand and shared our experience with mental health through very different lenses and learned from one another’s battle with a broken system. Thank you, Karen, for sharing your knowledge for being such a passionate advocate, and of course, for being a Champion of Community Wellness.


Ameera and I had the opportunity to meet at a training session in Vancouver two years ago. It doesn’t seem that long ago, really! It was an honour when she reached out to me recently to write an article for her IMPACT project, and of course I said “yes!” right away. Her ask to me was to write about how having a child who experiences mental health challenges impacted or influenced me as a parent. To be honest, this has been a hard article to start. At first, I wondered if what I had to say would be important. I then started to wonder how deep I would go into sharing my vulnerabilities. Last, but certainly not the least, I started to really think about and consider my son. It is important to me that I hold him and his privacy in the highest regard in this article.

There is a fine line I need to walk as a parent when I am sharing my experiences with my kids. I have a desire to share the difficult realities I experience, however I need to ensure I am careful not to create the perception that my child or his diagnosis are the reason for these challenges. I must be mindful to not forget to share the good stuff too! I have been writing about my parenting journey for the past couple of years, and I have had to work hard at honouring this. I don’t always get it right, either, but I am always reflecting and evaluating (which is probably why it has taken so long for me to write this article!).

In October 2016 I had the opportunity to attend a talk by Ian Brown, author of The Boy in the Moon and writer for the Globe and Mail. In his talk, he reflected on the years of interactions with systems of care and how no one within those systems had ever asked him what he loved about his son. This was a powerful statement and it has stayed with me. And so, this is how I would like to start our story. I would like to share with you a few of the things that I love about my son.

I love the way his mind can capture and hold so much information on an area of interest, and the way he can ramble off random facts about said topic with ease. I love his laugh, which is like a giggle, its sweet melody wraps around me like a warm hug. I love his gentleness with animals, birds in particular. He will rescue the ones who fly into our windows, giving them comfort through their shock until they are ready to fly again. I love his resourcefulness. If he wants to know about something, he will do whatever he can to learn about it. I love when I see him doing what he loves. I see his perseverance, his drive to complete the task and his pride when his work is done. I love the colour of his hair, the way it will curl at the ends when it gets too long. I savour those moments when he takes my hand and says “I love you mom.”

If you are a parent, then you know that life often does not turn out how you expect it will when you start having kids. And this is okay. Our kids challenge us to think bigger, to learn about them, to reflect on our own perspectives and ideas. Sometimes this happens when our children are younger, and sometimes it doesn’t happen until they are older youth. But it definitely happens! And it should. Our kids’ life should not be what WE think it will be, but what THEY want and make it to be. And when that realization hits us as parents, then our responsibility becomes doing what we can to guide and support them on their path.

In our family, in my parenting, I was challenged early. I had grown up with a particular parenting style and of course, this is the method I employed with my own children. When I reflect back now, I am surprised that I stayed entrenched in that method for as long as I did before I recognized it wasn’t working. I think there were a number of factors that influenced this. In the short space of two years, I was married, moved a province away from my family, I had my first and then my second child. My husband worked away from home 8 months out of those two years. I was a little very overwhelmed.

The word “anxiety” was first introduced to our family when our son was almost six. By this time I had been actively trying to seek out assistance to help me address some of the challenges we were experiencing for a while. To be honest, I was a bit perplexed by this word and how it related to what we were experiencing. I had always considered anxiety to be avoidance or fear. So this was something new for me. I started to read more and research, and as I did it started to fit.

We sought out services through our local mental health program, attending groups and individual sessions. I discovered a very important thing. I needed to learn how to recognize my own anxiety and how this contributed to some of the challenges we were experiencing. I needed to learn how to look critically at my expectations and determine whether they were for MY benefit or my child’s.

It was also important I learn how to start really listening to my son and what he was trying to tell me. I had to look beyond the way he was saying it for the message he was communicating. So often, we respond to the way things are said without considering the need that is being communicated. Sometimes it was really hard to explore the message that was being communicated by the behavior. I discovered that when I started acknowledging and addressing the need that my son was trying to share with me, the WAY he would say things started to change too.

I learned that change isn’t easy and it certainly doesn’t happen overnight just because we want it to. Change takes work and requires ownership.

In one of the first posts on my blog, I wrote:

When I had a setback, I owned it. I apologized to my children, to my husband and I promised to do better. I tried to remember to gentle with myself, and not beat myself up so much for not being perfect at this. I reflected on what was happening for me that I felt I couldn’t do things the new way. I learned my triggers. Slowly but surely I became more confident in my approach.” Change is Never Easy…and it Shouldn’t Be

I am still working on this. I expect I always will be!

I started to reflect on my own anxious tendencies when I was growing up. These patterns that had stayed with me, ingrained for years, and I actually finally started dealing with them. Now, decades later, there are situations I can walk into that would have been extremely uncomfortable for me previously.

I went through a period of time where I didn’t make sure to take care of my own mental health. I buried my own needs, thinking that if I just took care of everyone else’s, everything would be okay. Let’s just say this was not a good strategy!

It was a hard lesson for me. I needed to learn how to reach out and ask for help sooner. I learned how to accept help when it was offered. I started to evaluate my priorities, set boundaries and then honour those boundaries. I began to understand that I cannot be everything, and I went to work creating a village of supportive adults around our family.

We’ve had many challenges thrown our way over the years. I had to learn how to navigate disjointed systems of care, often to be met with brick walls and inadequate supports. I don’t think there can be anything worse than seeing your child struggling in a very big way, and feeling dismissed or set aside by the services that are designed to support.

HOWEVER…

This is not our only story. We have had many family members, friends, educators and providers who have been involved with our lives that have made a tremendous impact. Who have come alongside of our family, believed in us and guided us. These are the people who keep us moving forward. They help us know that we will get through any unexpected detours that are thrown in our path.

I have learned how to listen to and respect the voices of the people who have similarities to my son. I learn from people like Ameera, who candidly and courageously share their experiences so that I can better understand what might be happening for my own children. These stories and messages help me consider what may be helpful, and avoid the interventions or language that might end up causing harm. I know my child will not be young forever. He will grow up to be an adult, and so it is incredibly important to me that I hear and learn from adults who live this, and allow their stories to guide me and challenge my biases and perspectives.

I connect with other parents, learning about different resources that might be available to our family. Sharing what has worked for us, but also acknowledging that each family is on their own path and will find their way in their own time.

I seek out the stories and perspectives of service providers and educators, because their stories matter too. I want to understand the ways I can come alongside of them and support the work they are doing. When I know this, I can be a better partner in my son’s care.

This is definitely not what I expected my parenting journey to look like. However, it is the one I got, and I am thankful.

 

Karen Copeland

championsforcommunitywellness.com

The IMPACT Project: Iman Musani

Ever since I’ve known Iman, she’s been thoughtful, studious, and probably more intelligent than 90% of the people she meets. Iman also volunteers for a crisis line, and agreed to share the unique perspective of the person on the other side of the line. She’s the one that often talks people down from the ledge and is the ear who listens when it feels no one else will. Her views may not be what you’re expecting, but they are undoubtedly true and important for everyone to remember. 


Lessons From The Crisis Line

When Ameera first asked me to write something for this project, my immediate response was that I had no story to tell. I spend a lot of time listening to other people’s stories on the crisis line and through research in psychology, but I definitely don’t have my own. But recently, I realized how much of a privilege it is to be able to listen to these stories and to be able to ask questions and work in a field where I can try to better understand the why behind mental illness. I’ve spent the past few months pushing myself to be a better ally to those struggling… here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. Asking for help will always be difficult (but you should do it anyway). Whether you’re calling a crisis line for the first time or texting your friend for the millionth time, it’s hard. More often than not, I pick up the phone or answer an instant message chat to someone saying “I’m sorry to bother you” or “I don’t know if I called the right place- I mean I’m not really in crisis”. The first lesson I’ve learned is to acknowledge the effort that it takes to reach out, regardless of how many times someone has already done so.
  1. Resources are NOT always the answer. It’s really easy to throw resources at people and think we are helping. I’m not a professional so I’ll send you to one…but honestly, finding a resource that fits is even harder than finding that perfect bikini or the cookie recipe that is just right. Sending someone to a resource that isn’t right for them or one with a long wait time to access help can be extremely harmful. I learned this the hard way when a caller on the crisis line hung up on me because they had called multiple times and been sent to resources that wouldn’t take them for various reasons; by the time the caller spoke with me, they were so fed up with feeling like they would never find something that matched their needs. Don’t get me wrong, there are many resources that are helpful, but we need to be mindful in how we use them. It’s important to take into account wait times, financial barriers, cultural barriers, and stigma within the healthcare system before we blindly throw resources at people.
  1. Empathy doesn’t require having experienced the same things as someone else. We may not have all experienced depression, but we have all been sad/tired/dejected/hopeless at some point. We haven’t all experienced an anxiety disorder but we have all been anxious. We may not have all experienced bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, a personality disorder, an eating disorder, or an addiction. But we all know what it’s like to be overwhelmed, to not understand, and to be stuck. If you don’t understand, ask. If you don’t have the words, just be present.  
  1. You don’t have to have a mental illness to talk about mental health. Last year, I cut off 15 inches of my hair for cancer and I was met with nothing but praise and support. I was never asked why I did it or if I knew someone with cancer. In contrast, when I talk about mental health or tell people I volunteer at the crisis centre, people always ask me why I care so much about it. In Canada, mental illness accounts for 31% of overall disability. That’s more than ANY OTHER injury or illness. Being willing to talk about mental health even when you don’t have a mental illness is a HUGE step in reducing the stigma attached to disorders that are killing people every day (3,000 deaths from suicide worldwide EVERY DAY, btw). These stats are easy to throw around, but when someone dies every 40 seconds from ANYTHING, it’s time we all start speaking up about it.
  1. It’s okay to get frustrated, it’s okay not to know the answers, it’s okay to take a step back but it is NOT okay to give up. It is understandable that sometimes you will hold the pain of other people a little too tightly and blame yourself when they are unable to make progress. It’s also understandable to get annoyed or frustrated when they cancel plans or talk too much about their problems. It’s okay to be overwhelmed. It’s okay to not know how to react. It’s okay to need a break. You are human too and your mental health is also important. BUT if we gave up on everything when it got a little inconvenient or a little too uncomfortable, we would never get anywhere. We all have the capacity to contribute in some way and we can always do more.

The IMPACT Project: Kayley Reed – #GirlBoss

Kayley Reed is the CEO and Creative Director of Wear Your Label, a clothing line dedicated to starting conversations around mental health and spreading the idea that “it’s okay not to be okay.” She embodies what it means to be a strong, independent woman while embracing vulnerability. I met Kayley two years ago through Jack.org, and am so lucky to consider her a Role Model in my own life – from sharing her successes and failures, to always finding a balance between taking care of herself and being there for others. Thank you, Kayley, for showing me that a person can have a mental illness AND be successful. -AL


AL: How has dealing with mental illness or mental health issues impacted the way you conduct yourself professionally? In what ways has your mental health impacted business decisions or how you make them? 

KR: It can be challenging, because there is still a stigma in the workplace – especially in the startup scene. Entrepreneurs are pressured to do it all, to be successful, to build and grow companies quickly, and to endure/overcome obstacles because it’s part of the journey. We’re expected to carry the ship (even when it’s sinking) and to always bring optimism and encouragement to our employees, investors, partners, and customers. But depression and suicidal ideation among entrepreneurs is pretty astounding – just look at: http://www.cnn.com/videos/cnnmoney/2017/03/08/mostly-human-silicon-valleys-secret.cnnmoney

I often struggle to find that perfect balance – between being a leader to my team, playing the startup “role”, and being authentic to my brand (and my mental health). In business settings, it’s not always professional to be transparent about what you’re going through. However, with internal business decisions and establishing our work environment, mental health has played a big role in making decisions.

For example, being very flexible in work hours and scheduling. I’m not a morning person, and trying to establish a 9-5 routine was really difficult for me. So I decided to allow myself and our employees more flexibility to fit with their work style. Also, being really understanding with mental health issues and encouraging employees to talk about whatever they might be going through – and to take a sick day for their mental health if they need it. Every Friday morning is also considered “Self-Care Time”: everyone takes the morning off work to do something for themselves, whether it’s go to the gym, sleep in, or hang out with a friend. It’s a small gesture that helps boost moral after a long week!

 

AL: What is the hardest part of being a successful entrepreneur and someone who deals with mental illness?

KR: On the outside looking in, things seem much more successful than they are. And when you struggle with mental illness, the obstacles seem that much grander. People are constantly asking “What’s new? What’s next?” and sometimes I feel like just getting out of bed was an accomplishment. I think that over-glamorized picture of a startup founder is harmful – the glorification of “the hustle” over our own mental health. People expect you to give it 150%, 24/7. But entrepreneurs need down time, too. We need self-care. It shouldn’t come with the stigma of being lazy, or not being fully committed to your startup. It should be encouraged.

 

AL: You chose to integrate mental health with your career. How has that impacted you?

KR: I often say that starting Wear Your Label has been the best, and worst, thing for my mental health. The best, because it’s forced me to share my story, to be completely transparent with what I’ve gone through, and to surround myself with an amazing community of people who “get it”. The worst, because building a business is really, really hard. The emotional and financial stress, the expectations you put on yourself, and the expectations from others… It’s all very challenging. But I wouldn’t change it for the world.

I’m fortunate that I get to travel a lot, and speak to different audiences both about my mental health journey, and startup journey. I’ve met some of the most amazing people – from musicians and celebrities, to grassroots non-profit organizers and advocates. The best part of my job is being able to connect on that level of “I understand. I feel you.”, and be inspired by the stories of others. There are so, so many people doing really important work towards changing the stigma, and I’m grateful to be one small piece of the puzzle.

 

AL: Many people believe that having a mental illness can hinder your professional development or progress, whereas yours has been at the forefront of your success. What has that been like?

KR: It can be hindrance, for sure. But something we talk about at Wear Your Label is turning your struggles into something that make you stronger. We just co-hosted a panel at Dalhousie University, titled “Your Struggle is Your Sword” – and I love that quote. It’s really a shift in perspective that has helped me turn my mental illness from a negative in my life, to a positive (in a sense). It’s taught me empathy. It’s taught me understanding. It’s taught me self-love, confidence, and self-care. It’s taught me the importance of advocacy (not just in mental health, but other causes, like intersectional feminism). My mental illness has taught me the importance of speaking out, of sharing your story (whatever it is), and of taking action on things you care about.

Having struggled with an eating disorder, a lot of my backstory with mental health issues is focused on the narrative of perfection. Seeking perfection in myself, my body, and things that I do; I have a fear of imperfection and being recognized as flawed. However, channeling that same care and energy into something positive – like building a brand – rather than something destructive – like ED behaviour – is one of the ways I’ve tried to use my struggle, and turn it into a strength.

 

AL: What are some of the benefits and challenges of having your mental health and your profession be so closely linked?

KR: Benefits: I think many people look to me as a Role Model. At least in the sense of mental health advocacy, being open about my struggles, and encouraging others to practice self-care. Every day I get messages on instagram from friends, and strangers, reaching out about what they’re going through and thanking me for sharing my story. It means a lot to know that others feel a little more comfortable, and a little less alone, because of the work I do.

The challenges: I think leaders, and mental health advocates, are often expected to be “fully recovered”. As if we’ve figured everything out, and are totally happy and healthy now, and that’s why we can talk about it. However, I think that’s a misconception. A lot of leaders that I know still struggle with their mental health – they’ve just learned to manage it better, and speak openly about it.

 

AL: IMPACT is about sharing our stories, but also about how our mental health can impact the stories of others. What kind of impact do you think your mental health, or sharing your mental health has had on other people? 

KR: Well, I’m really lucky in the sense that my story has had a lot of exposure – through press, on social media – and I’ve had a ton of positive feedback from people, all over the world, sharing how important it is to them. It honestly still surprises me to this day, how impactful Wear Your Label is, and has been, to other’s recovery journeys. To me, I just wanted to create something that I wish I had when I was struggling. That’s my motivation. I don’t often take a ton of time to reflect on the impact I’ve had, because it’s my job now. I live this (mental health advocacy) every single day. It’s not something I want to do, it’s something I feel I need to do. So recognition and stories that people share really is amazing. I was honoured with the Young Alumni Achievement Award from my alma mater, the University of New Brunswick, and I definitely cried receiving that and fully realizing the impact that I and Wear Your Label have had in less than 3 years.

The IMPACT Project: Din Ladak

Many people know that a mental illness can strain relationships, close lines of communication, and create confusion and misunderstanding. Somehow, the opposite rang true for my dad and me. Though we were not close  while I was growing up, he was actually the first person I attempted to open up to. It was as if discovering my mental illness made the distance in our relationship seem more understandable, and less of a character flaw for either of us. We learned neither of us had failed – that it didn’t matter if I went left and he went right, I went up and he went down, because there were more important things that we needed to be united on. When he finally realized the severity of my illness, he was by my side, driving me to appointments, finding doctors, and replacing judgement with openness. There’s a saying that I believe sums up the transformation our relationship went through since my diagnosis: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” The more both of us recognized this, the more we respected and supported one another. Thanks for not giving up on me, Din. – AL


The fog on Monday morning was thick. It was Family Day in Alberta. I opened the blinds and could barely see beyond our deck. As beautiful as it looked, I was not able to look any further. My view of the world was hampered. My vision destroyed. And my hopes for a clearing in the fog diminished as the day went on. It had me thinking about how Monday was Family Day: a day to celebrate your family and loved ones, and I was instantly transported to the world of those who face this hampered view of the world constantly, not by choice but because of a mental illness. “You missed it, Dad,” she said to me.  “You are a social worker by training and I thought maybe you would see through this, but it crept past you.” It had me stop dead in my tracks. As I looked outside the window on Monday morning, I realized how her life was filled with this complex, dense fog.

On the evening of August 6, 2013, she asked us to get her to the hospital, and said, “I need some help.” It was 11:30 pm, and my wife and myself did exactly that: we drove her to the hospital and she was in the hands of the best care team. At 7:00 am the next morning, the mental health counselor came to us in the waiting room and said, “you are very lucky parents that she talked it over and asked to come to the hospital.”

“I need some help!” They were the most powerful words I heard as a father. You see, in all these years of being a parent, I often believed that providing for the day-to-day needs of my children was good. Almost like Denzel Washington said in the movie, Fences. But this was far from the truth. My real purpose as a father had just begun: to understand Ameera better, her challenge with mental illness, her experience in having lived through years of torment before reaching out, and her repeated attempts to try to comprehend what was happening to her. Life had dealt her a tough blow, yet it never ceased to amaze me how the power of a loving family could heal many a tough situation. Her own journey in alleviating stigma, in striking conversations about mental illness and mental well-being, and in being a champion of change has been more far reaching than ever!

I learnt fatherhood from my parents. They were available for us no matter what. My internal mantra has always been exactly that. I realized however that being physically available is different from being emotionally present. I think that as a father, I had understood physical presence better than emotional presence, yet professionally I was unwaveringly emotionally available for everyone. Every interaction with Ameera was influential in determining our next conversation with each other. “You know Dad, there are times I just don’t wish to talk as you are driving me to school in the morning, please try to hear what I am saying.” Why would it be so hard for me to understand that? It is because I looked forward to spending time with my daughter, yet I learnt it had to be on terms that worked for both. I learnt to accept that. As an eighth born in a family of nine, I was surrounded by full conversations every living moment. But life was different now and I eventually managed to grasp that.

I would pick her up from school every Friday afternoon, and we would have a late lunch since she finished at 1:30 pm, and so did I at my place of work. We sat at Boston Pizza and she would have her sliders and I would gorge over a pecan salad while surreptitiously eyeing her food, and then we would split a chocolate sundae or the hot fudge brownie that had molten lava streaming through it. Those were good times. We talked about her day and her week at school, and I would talk about how my week went, and she would give me some “sage corporate advice”. I learnt that moments of stillness were good. Silence was okay. There were other ways to affirm a loving relationship. I nurtured it. I treasured it. I cherished those times. It glued us in some mysterious ways. It strengthened our bond and our respect for each other, and it communicated how in life we would always be there for each other. But that Monday morning, I realized that I too may have skipped some important definitive milestones in being a good father, the kind of father I always wanted to be.

At that moment, the fog lifted. I could see the world with greater clarity. My actions today will always affect someone else. Someone did tell me once: “It’s like the boomerang effect, once you initiate change it inevitably impacts someone else, and ultimately comes back to you.” But I still beg the question: how far have we moved the needle? Well, not far enough. Until the stigma goes away, we can do more. Until the conversations are happening in multiple places, until the supports for people with mental illness are provided unconditionally, our work is not done. It’s a frame of mind that must change, and I know that as a father, this journey for me has started. I am proud to be Ameera’s dad, of her accomplishments in having lifted the fog so others could see with more clarity.

It has been a tough few years. But we look back and remind ourselves that as our dear daughter talked about her illness, we needed to listen. Listen attentively. Listen with no judgements, listen with affirmation. Let her be her, and we could be us as a family. She has played an important role in our lives, an incredible role, and we know her journey is far from over, but we instill hope in her all the time, and we support her to support others see through their fog. Ameera has “Survived by Living”. And if you have read her blog, you will know how many other people will benefit from her words. Reach out. The person who needs you is closer than you think.

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March 12, 2017 – At the airport before our annual father-daughter trip