Month: February 2014

An Elected Official discusses his Clinical Depression

In 10 minutes, Neher basically expresses my mentality towards discussing mental illness through his own experiences, and how learning about it when he knew nothing about depression helped him tremendously, just as talking and learning made a huge difference for me.

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Don’t Pull The Trigger

One of the main things I’ve noticed through my journey with depression, is that there are tons and tons of websites about it. This is excellent news, because people can participate in forums, blog or post about their journey and the internet has made finding support so much easier.

The issue, however, is that these sites are almost always monitored, and there are strict rules about what you can and cannot post. Of course it’s good to foster a positive and inspiring environment, but it doesn’t give an accurate picture about the raw, nitty-gritty stuff. People who run these sites are concerned about triggering people struggling with depression – every raw post must have a disclaimer saying there are triggers within the post, or sometimes it just won’t get posted for being too much of a trigger risk. Yes, we are dealing with a very volatile and serious situation, where small things can be triggers, but it still needs to be discussed, because when I read “triggering” posts, I kept thinking “Yes! I agree! This is so accurate!”, as opposed to the lovely sugar coated posts that say absolutely nothing, where I felt like people weren’t being truthful about how dark and ugly mental illness can be. When I was interviewed about my struggle with depression, and held absolutely nothing back, I also included a disclaimer stating it was much more intense than anything I had said before, but it needed to be said. Part of the reason mental illness is so prevalent is because we don’t talk about it! We don’t say “you know what, you had a rough go at it and dark stuff happened like contemplating or attempting suicide, but lets’ discuss it”. People aren’t afraid to say the word “heart attack” or “stroke” or “aneurism”, but people are terrified to say “suicide”. It’s as if saying it is as bad as swearing. Suicide is a serious epidemic that needs to be brought to light – it’s not Voldemort, where we need to skirt around saying the actual word.

If I asked you, “what is associated with Breast Cancer?” I’m sure every single person could say that it is a pink ribbon. What is the symbol for suicide awareness? Or mental illness awareness? Could you answer that? If so, congratulations, you’re one of very few. This is a serious issue, considering suicide is the number one cause of violent illness worldwide (close to 50%), and a person dies from suicide every 40 seconds, which means that in the time it takes your Keurig to make you a cappuccino, 1 person has died from suicide.

Here are some other hard-hitting facts that most people don’t know: Within 5 years, mental illness is going to be the second leading cause of premature death (after heart disease). At any point in time, 15% of Canadian children or youth (under 18) have a mental illness, and 1/5 people aged 15-24 have a mental illness or substance abuse problem. Some say the onset of mental illness can be as early as age 7! Even with these astounding facts, Canada only designates about 7% of health funding to mental illness, even though over 20% of the population is directly suffering from one.

Even though 80% of people respond very well to treatment (therapy or pharmacological), 2 out of 3 won’t ever get help for their mental illness and 90% of people with depression won’t seek help. Over 50% of people report experiencing a stigma from friends, family or other groups as a result of revealing they have a mental illness. Suicide accounts for 24% of deaths among people aged 15-25, which is close to 1 in 4.

According to a British Columbia study of 15,000 Grade 7 – 12 students: 
Those who knew of someone who had attempted or died of suicide: 34%

Had, themselves, seriously contemplated suicide: 16%

Had made a suicide plan: 14%

Had attempted suicide: 7%

Had to have medical attention due to an attempt: 2%

 

Despite all these astounding facts, with the prevalence of mental illness increasing at an astounding rate, there is not nearly enough being done about it. Therapy from a psychologist or counsellor or therapist, is not covered by most drug plans. Psychiatrist visits are sometimes covered, or partially covered, but the waiting lists to see a psychiatrist are way too long. Drugs like SSRI’s or SNRI’s, which are the most popular for treating depression and anxiety disorders, are seldom covered by basic drug plans, and can be quite expensive for those who need them the most. 70-90% of people who are unemployed have a mental illness.

Based on these facts, it is extremely important that we not only increase awareness about mental illness, but we take it a step further and talk about it without filtering the severity or ugliness of it, because it is the only way to help this epidemic. You can’t solve a problem that is never openly discussed. This issue is becoming bigger and bigger, and it’s time to step up and allow those suffering to speak up without being ostracized or accused of triggering someone else.

All facts taken from The Mood Disorders Society of Canada Quick Facts

Keep Surviving by Living.

“No” Is My Biggest Motivator

Some people may describe me as stubborn.

I disagree with them. Calling me stubborn is calling a blizzard light flurries – a gross understatement. I’m stubborn, strong-willed, and swaying my decisions is not an easy feat.

Over the past three years, with the various health issues I’ve faced, from my IBS to conversion disorder to depression, my inability to give into the advice of others, and my determination to stick to my guns got me to where I am today. How?

I’ll start with my senior year of high school, when I missed two months of school, was on the verge of not graduating, and was so behind that attending class was not only a struggle, but seemed entirely futile. At that point, my family and friends, who of course wanted nothing but the best for me, began to look at other options – local university, community college, high school upgrading, summer school, work programs, a year off, and other wonderful options I refused to consider. It sounded ridiculous to say I was going to attend a rigorous university program in a different city, in a different province, where I would be completely on my own in less than 3 months, when I could barely get out of bed every morning. Still, I forged on and planned to attend university as I had planned since I was in junior high. Would it be fair to call me crazy? Absolutely. It would be crazy NOT to call me crazy.

I truly believe that we are never given more than we can handle. I learned that from a friend once, and I am by no means very religious, but I have a strong belief in the idea that God, or whatever higher power there may be, will always put enough on your plate to push you to your limits (it’s the only way you can grow), but it will never be more than you are capable of handling if you have confidence in your abilities. Continuing on with the annoying clichés, I also operate on the assumption that everything happens for a reason. And I can say with complete confidence that I would not have been able to handle my battle with depression without first having to face the smaller issues I combated in high school.

Fast forward to entering university, when I had got my IBS under control and was ready to begin a semester full of hard work, new experiences and lifelong friendships. I got all three – just not in any of the ways I had anticipated. When I began to get seizures, I had an immense amount of support, from parents, friends and even university services (student health, student counselling and disability services). BUT…the main thing that came along with all that support was variations of the word “no”. It was in a number of forms, telling me I should become a part time student, drop out entirely, take time off, request a medical leave, move back home, take community college courses, you get the idea. Sound familiar? If not, see above, because it was the same stuff I had heard in high school. Granted, unexplainable seizures, 6 ambulance rides, a couple concussions and dissociative states were clearly more serious than my earlier stomach aches, but I figured, I had done it once, I could do it again. Plus, the idea of proving everyone wrong, and showing that I was capable of being like anyone else despite my extenuating circumstances was once again my main motivator. So I maintained a full course load, went to as many classes as I could, and passed every single class. There was a catch though; I did not achieve the minimum average required to stay in business school. Needless to say, I was devastated, and was provided with plenty of alternatives; switch faculties, attend SFU, return to Calgary for business school, take a year off and reapply. What did I say to those suggestions? Thanks, but no thanks. I filed an appeal and prepared to take summer school – my medical problems had taken away enough from me, I wasn’t about to let it take away my dream school either. You can probably guess how the appeal went based on the fact that I found myself back at Sauder the next year.

Speaking of the next year, it was this year and it was when I returned to school to an extremely intense course load – while battling severe depression. At this point, you’re probably thinking, “this girl is definitely insane for STILL pushing after yet another medical obstacle”. Before returning to school, those who knew about my depression were skeptical about my return to school, an incredibly stressful and difficult school nonetheless. It was the same few options, with a stress on me NOT returning to school at all, because I needed to be around family and a strong support system. As usual, I refused and began school. Needless to say, I wound up in the hospital for a significant amount of time in the life of a university student, and found myself under a lot of pressure to give into others’ suggestions. Return home. Drop courses. Take time off. All I heard was “Quit, quit, quit”. Let me be very clear here; I do not think that people who have to alter their lives and make changes to make life easier due to extenuating medical circumstances are quitters, I just knew I would always think of myself as a quitter, or someone who gave up if I did it.

Was it difficult to attempt to maintain a full courseload after missing so much content while in the hospital? It was close to impossible. Was it a struggle and disheartening when I missed even more class because I was too depressed to get out of bed? Of course it was. Did that make me change my stubborn mind? Not even for a second.

You see, all those other options, of altering my life course, made me more committed to sticking to the decisions I made. Depression takes such a strong hold on a person’s life, that I couldn’t let it take away my future too, when it was already dominating my present. Many people don’t understand that depression isn’t a temporary thing like a broken foot, where if you’re on crutches and you rest you’ll be fine later. Yes, depression needs to be managed and can be treated to the point that it is no longer a main issue in people’s lives, but for the most part, depression is a life-long thing. Just as conversion disorder and IBS are. I could never learn to properly live my life if I kept taking time off to focus on trying to deal with my depression, because I wouldn’t actually be dealing with the real world. I wanted to face it head on, and continue a normal life to the best of my ability, even if it was virtually impossible some days, if not most days.

So to those of you who think it’s ridiculous, or dangerous, or unwise, or were frustrated with the fact,  that I didn’t slow down my life, thank you. Because not only does it mean you’re concerned but you’re also part of the reason I can be here today, facing my life and the difficulties associated with it head on. The more I hear “no”, the more I want to work to prove it can be a “yes”. Like I said, whatever life throws at me, it’s never more than I can handle, and just when it seems like I really can’t handle it, it just means I’m getting ready for a growth spurt, and Lord knows I could use a couple more of those, standing at just under 5 feet.

Keep Surviving by Living.

Another Life-Changing Film

I’ve previously mentioned how important It’s Kind of a Funny Story was to me, and how it was a scarily accurate depiction of so many of the situations I found myself in. Another movie that resonated with me was Aashiqui 2, a foreign film from India that addresses the issue of addiction. While addiction is not an issue I have had to battle, many of the internal conflicts the main character and protagonist faces were incredibly similar to mine, including the mass amount of guilt of placing the burden of seemingly unsolvable issues on someone else. While the movie is largely a love story, it is also the story of a flawed man, who so desperately wants to be the man he used to, but is hindered by his personal demons and believes he can bring nothing but harm and pain to those he loves the most. This was an idea that I grappled with a lot, and it was difficult for me to understand that I’m more than just a burden on others. I remember using the story line, and quotes from the movie to try to articulate what I was thinking, at a time when I really could not put my struggle into my own words.
Aashiqui 2 received a lot of backlash, and although many people loved the soundtrack, a majority of people hated the storyline. This almost made me like it more, because it proved how real the story was and how people are often unwilling to accept that reality is messy and stories about mental health are often not pretty with typical endings. I’m not a person who usually enjoys watching foreign films, but this is a must see for anyone who wants to know more about how dark and gritty things can get. Plus, the songs are pretty great, so that’s a nice bonus.
Aashiqui 2 Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dv5onNXaPOI
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West One wasn’t the Westin

Exactly 5 months ago today, I was released from a psychiatric unit at Vancouver General Hospital called West One. Being in West One was one of the best and worst experiences of my life. West One was a unit that had 20 beds in total – 15 for people struggling with addiction and mental illness, and 5 for those with just a mental illness. I fell into the latter category with 5 beds. In total, I spent 5 days in the unit, for a total of 6 days in the hospital (one was spent in the ER under psychiatric watch). It felt like an eternity, and from the first day I couldn’t way to get out, but I knew it was where I needed to be to get back on track, and less than a week was considered short term – most people in West One had been there for an average of about a month.

Phase 1: Getting There

I was having a bad night, and despite hating hospitals and ambulances, I finally agreed to go, provided I didn’t have to go alone. My roommate was kind enough to not only accompany me in the ambulance, but she also stayed with me the entire night, and remained at the hospital until I was comfortable for her to leave once I was settled into West One. When the emergency psychiatric team told me I needed to be admitted to an actual psych ward, I was absolutely horrified. I tried to assure them I didn’t need to be, knowing that was a complete lie, but at that point I had no say in the matter – they were legally obligated to keep me there.

Settling into my new temporary home

West One was exactly like the mental units you see in the movies – people of all different walks of life working towards their recovery. There was that typical room you would imagine – white walls with nothing in it for people who were too dangerous to themselves or others. My room was bright and shared with three wonderful roommates, who were quite different from me. Most people wore the same hospital given apparel – green or beige scrubs that were “one size fits all”. Spoiler alert: one size does NOT fit all. I could have fit three of me in one scrub top. It wasn’t a choice though – as a new resident, I didn’t have any privileges yet, which meant I was not allowed my own clothes, I couldn’t leave the unit (alone or accompanied) and I wasn’t allowed any personal belongings. Three days into my stay, I was allowed to have my clothes back, and was permitted to leave the unit for one hour, as long as I was accompanied. Two of my friends came to pick me up and took me out for dinner to Denny’s (practically gourmet compared to hospital meals). Eventually, I was allowed 10 minute fresh-air breaks every hour where I was given access to my phone so I could text friends and update them on my progress. Other than that, all phone calls to me had to be directed to the resident phone, via the nurse’s station.

How I spent my time at West One

In West One, I had to be up by 9am latest, to ensure I was up and not in bed all day. Every morning started with reporting to the nurses station for medicines, and was followed by breakfast and an evaluation (which was called a conversation) by a nurse. Each day, I had a new nurse and had to check in with her throughout the day. The rest of the morning I was free to do whatever I pleased – provided it was on the unit and was approved. I finished three word search books and made a point of getting to know every single person on my unit. Some people I only learned the names of, and other people I ended up getting relatively close to. West One had an activity room, where I could paint, read, play ping pong, or work out on stationary bikes. I did all four of these activities every day for extended periods of time. Generally, there were activities in the afternoon offered to all the residents, like arts workshop, yoga or relaxation. Arts workshop was my favourite, and I made bracelets for the people who were closest to me during my time at West One as a small token of my gratitude for everything they had sacrificed to help me. I was the only patient in West One who had a visitor every single day, from my dad, to my roommates to other friends who had heard. Additionally, a doctor would come every day to evaluate my progress and determine the next steps in my recovery process. Evenings ended up being the most boring, as the activity room would close and after dinner many people would go to bed, but that was when I had the best conversations with people. Before lights out at 10pm, I would again report to my nurse and take any medicine required before bed.

The People of West One

I met some of the most amazing people I’ve ever known in West One. Everyone was so friendly, and so open about their issues, because we were all battling our own demons. The thing that really touched me, was how supportive other patients were, despite their own problems to deal with, and how non-judgemental the whole atmosphere was. While I won’t use any names to describe the people I met, I will describe some of our interactions.

The first person I met when I got there, was a green-haired teenage boy battling heroin addiction and depression. He welcomed me to the unit and offered to show me around. For the first couple of days, he was going through serious withdrawal from the drugs, but helped me find my way around, explained the different activities offered, told me tricks about good menu items, and helped me get a pair of special hospital socks – Pillow Paws, which to this day are my favourite. It was his third stay in West One and he was more than happy to help me out, because he could see how terrified and out of my element I was. He had a guitar, which he used to sing songs and most evenings we would sing together – him playing and teaching me the words while I tried to harmonize. His dream was to get clean and become a psychiatrist, so he could educate kids on the dangers of drugs, because he thought if he knew what he was getting himself into when he started, he wouldn’t have done drugs.

Later in the week, I met a wonderful old lady who became a grandmother figure during my time at West One. She was very kind-hearted and loved to talk. We became close despite our age gap and often ate meals together, but ended up doing most of our bonding at arts and crafts. She saw one of the bracelets I made and kept raving about how pretty it was, so I helped her make one. Every morning she would find me and ask if I was going to the activity of the day, and insist that we go together, which was completely fine by me. After learning more about my life, she told me how much life I had ahead of me, and that I didn’t belong in a place like West One – I was too good for it. As an old woman, she was often tired, but was always up bright and early when I first met her. After we got close, she slept more and when I asked her why, she said it was because she spent an hour every night praying for me because she wanted me to go places in life and knew I would. I was flabbergasted – here she was, dealing with her own issues, yet she spent an hour every night praying for ME. Upon hearing that, I realized I needed to step up and begin to live life properly – there was so much to it.

Two of my roommates ended up becoming my “West One Moms”. They looked out for me, asked me to join them for breakfast, and were there to listen if I was upset. It was a very scary experience, and I would get upset my first couple of nights, but they were there to reassure me it wasn’t so bad. They were completely different – one was a quiet and softspoken woman who told me she worked as a high class lawyer in New York for a number of years, while the other was an eccentric artist that was bursting with energy. The energetic one would often compliment my art, and when  I gave her one of my paintings, she went around the whole floor and showed everyone, claiming I was so talented. My main comfort was Brody, a stuffed shark given to me by my sister for my birthday, who could turn into a pillow by turning it inside out. The lawyer thought it was amazing, and when I left West One, she told me she was going to get a dolphin version of Brody and name it Ameera to remind her of me.

When I first went to West One, I was convinced it would be a looney bin with a bunch of nut jobs ; I couldn’t have been more wrong. I could also say that the people in West One were just like anyone else, but that wouldn’t be the whole truth. The patients in West One were even better. Each one of them had a heart of gold and had so much to offer – they were just facing setbacks due to illness and circumstance, but the resilience and kindness I saw in the ones I got to know was more inspiring than I can ever say.

West One wasn’t the Westin, but I learned more in those 5 days than I ever did in my entire life. Without the amazing doctors and patients in that unique place, I would be nowhere near as strong as I am today, and I am truly grateful to have had that experience. I also know I wouldn’t have been able to benefit from that experience without the support from my friends and family who were always there for me during such an emotional time for me and have no words to express my eternal gratitude to them. Like I said, it was the best and worst experience of my life.

Keep Surviving by Living.

An Interview about My Journey

An Interview about My Journey

A couple of days ago I stumbled upon a blog that shares interviews with survivors of suicide attempts. I emailed the blogger saying how great I thought it was and shared a link to my blog. I received a response almost immediately asking if I wanted to be featured in an interview and I agreed, knowing it would talk about virtually every part of my experience.

This interview is incredibly intense, and is more raw than any of the blog posts I’ve written thus far. Please be aware and know that it includes even the darkest details I have never spoken of before.

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The Words I Could Never Say

“A working brain is probably a lot like a map, where anybody can get from one place to another on the freeways. It’s the nonworking brains that get blocked, that have dead ends, that are under construction like mine.”
“I didn’t want to wake up. I was having a much better time asleep. And that’s really sad. It was almost like a reverse nightmare, like when you wake up from a nightmare you’re so relieved. I woke up into a nightmare.”
“Its so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself. That’s above and beyond everything else, and it’s not a mental complaint-it’s a physical thing, like it’s physically hard to open your mouth and make the words come out. They don’t come out smooth and in conjunction with your brain the way normal people’s words do; they come out in chunks as if from a crushed-ice dispenser; you stumble on them as they gather behind your lower lip. So you just keep quiet.”

– Ned Vizzini, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story”

This is a collection of some of the best quotes from my favourite novel – It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini, about a teenager who spends a week in a mental hospital. When my parents first found out about my depression, they so desperately wanted to understand, but my mental state was such that I was literally unable to speak about it. I couldn’t express in words what I felt or thought. I searched my room for this book, which I had read three years earlier, at a time when I would have scoffed at the idea that it would be parallel to my life someday. When I finally found it, I placed it on my parents bed, with a note asking them to read it because it would say all the things I couldn’t.
Keep Surviving By Living.

Mark Henick – A Brilliantly Articulate Man

Mark Henick spoke at TedX Toronto 2013, an event my sister played a role in organizing. Both my father and sister saw this Ted Talk and immediately messaged me saying I had to see it. I watched it when the video was put up online, and was shocked at how accurate, honest and raw it was.

Teach the Teachers

I was recently asked to create a post about how teachers can help their students who they believe are suffering from depression. I had to think about this one a bit, because I never really thought of it. My depression really hit me in university, and I received absolutely no support from my professors. When I missed school because I was spending time in a mental health facility, the most I got from my professors were requests for proof or suggestions to ask classmates for notes. As a result, I never considered that teachers or professors could be a support. Thinking back to when I was in junior high and high school when I faced my first bout of depression (albeit not nearly as serious as it became years later) I think teachers could have made a huge impact.

The first thing that teachers should recognize is this: your class doesn’t matter. That sounds a little harsh, so let me rephrase. When there is a student who debates whether to get on the bus to school or jump in front of it, their unfinished problem set, or incomplete lab report really doesn’t matter. Coming to school depressed, faking that smile and struggling to engage is a huge challenge for many young people with depression, and being told “sorry, no excuses, if it’s late it’s a 0” really doesn’t help things. Of course, it isn’t sufficient to just forget about homework every time a kid says they’re depressed, because it’s a term used very loosely.

Most teachers will know, there are often students who don’t have people rooting for them. For me, encouragement from teachers was huge and I thrived on knowing someone was in my corner – and I had a great family to support me as well!

I would have loved if teachers offered a “talk to me” policy, instead of more strict policies. Everyone has crazy stuff going on in their lives, and if my teachers had a rule where we could work something out if I didn’t finish my homework, I would have learned a lot more. Teachers usually end up staying after school or coming early for tutorials. Instead of giving them an automatic 0, making them feel more depressed and learning nothing, offer to work through the assignment with them in a tutorial.

I was lucky that I had great friends who helped me through every single assignment that I had missed, but university is different. My assignments were bigger and not as frequent – high school has homework due practically every day. I missed countless lectures and caught up on my own, but high school absences go on your permanent record.

Our education system has close to nothing to help students with mental illness. Guidance counsellors serve as university advisors, and students usually don’t want to go to their school nurse or counsellor for help. For many students, they feel like just a number, a crippling idea when you’re depressed.

Not everyone is ready to work and participate every day. Students with mental illness usually aren’t stupid – in fact, it’s more likely that they’re extremely intelligent. In my case, missing school because I was depressed made my depression worse! Offer students options, because it’s okay to miss class if they try to learn or have a concrete reason.

Teachers see their students more than most parents see their kids. If teachers pay a little closer attention, and try to get to know their students as actual people, they could probably make a huge difference. Don’t treat us, especially the ones who may be at risk, as if we are all the same. We’re not. We have different struggles and different reasons, not all of which can be explained by a concrete doctor’s note. I had teachers who I felt really comfortable with, and I did everything I could to do my work even if I felt really depressed. Why? Because they cared, they showed me my voice mattered.

Depressed people often fixate on the negative, so imagine being a depressed student who constantly sees red pen with criticism all over their page. Try positive reinforcement, give compliments, hell, give them a sticker! Encourage more dialogue with your students on a person-to-person basis, not just a “I-write-your-report-card” basis.

Overall, teachers are amazing people who want nothing more than to educate children and help students become the best version of themselves. Those students can’t do that if they’re depressed, but teachers really have the ability to step in, and be a positive fixture in their students’ lives. To this day, I am grateful to every teacher who encouraged me and coached me when I was younger, because it’s how I am in a position today where I can manage a full courseload, a serious mental illness, and make time for whatever else I want to accomplish.

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