A new state of mind

26 09 2013

It’s a rare and wonderful thing to love what you do for a living. I’ve been incredibly blessed to land a job with a charity and a cause I’ve come to strongly believe in, so this post more or less wrote itself.

That organization is Partners for Mental Health, and its goal — to create a new state of mind in Canada, one in which mental health is talked about, treated and supported differently — is what inspired the title of this post.

As part of my job, I get to work with a really neat team of volunteers called Community Correspondents who pretty much energize me every time I talk to them. Their amazing passion for mental health and their willingness to talk about why it matters to them is one of the reasons why I’m sharing why mental health has become so important to me.

When one in five Canadians personally experiences mental illness during their lifetime, and more than 450 million people worldwide suffer from mental disorders (with even more having mental problems), you are very likely to meet someone who lives with mental health concerns. I was no exception, and yet I admit I was quite flawed in my knowledge of the issue and how to deal with it and properly support a loved one struggling with their mental health.

A very dear friend of mine lived with severe anxiety for very many years. Many nights I sat up with her while she hyperventilated, breathed into a paper bag and cried for hours, worrying that she wouldn’t make it. Sometimes she fainted and blacked out and we once had to wheel her out of her apartment on an office chair as she was rendered immobile by her anxiety and we couldn’t carry her. Very often, the panic attacks happened while we were out with other people. The triggers would often be little things, things that we thought she should have been able to deal with — pain from an injury, an allergic reaction, the crash from a sugar high.

I am ashamed to admit that I sometimes thought the things you hear about when you think of the word “stigma.” Why can’t she be stronger? Why is this happening all the time? Isn’t this a bit dramatic? Does this even happen when no one else is around? I started off being sympathetic, and eventually my patience wore thin and I wasn’t as supportive as I should have been, when she needed me the most. I didn’t understand her pain, and I imagine it must have been lonely for her.

It wasn’t until later that I heard her talk about how God had been her only companion during those dark times that I realized how I’d failed her as a friend and sister. Through it all,  faith sustained her as she read the Psalms daily and related to the anguish of those writers of old who cried out to God. My friend grew stronger and was able to better deal with her anxiety, and today she rarely has such severe panic attacks. To me, her recovery was truly a testament to how the Holy Spirit can work in our lives, heal us, and through that brings us to a greater knowledge of His goodness and faithfulness, and I told her so.

When I got my job at Partners for Mental Health, it really broke my heart to talk to others who lived through the same debilitating experiences as my lovely friend, to read their stories and to learn the statistics on mental health. At the same time, I have been inspired by the hope and courage exhibited by so many of the people with whom I have interacted, and it has really made me believe that change in the way we support mental health IS possible and that it is something for which we should strive.

I’ve learned so much, and it has really helped me to understand that mental illness should be treated like any other illness; that people living with it suffer just as much, if not more, than those with physical illnesses, and that mental well-being is vital to overall health.

I’ve come to see too that understanding begins with engaging in that conversation. Until I started talking about my work, I never realized how many people I knew had been touched by severe depression (and I’m not talking about that “I’m so depressed because I failed my exam” kind of depression) and other mental illnesses, and had just never spoken about it with anyone. I saw myself in the people who asked, “What do you mean you can’t control your own mind?” — and I was ashamed.

I’m working on changing that, which is why I’m writing this post. Here’s a video I made for our organization’s first campaign, Not Myself Today:

I hope you’ll join me in the conversation.

P.S. These amazing comics from Hyperbole and a Half made me laugh, and helped me understand depression a little better: Adventures in Depression and Depression Part Two

P.P.S. Oct. 10 is World Mental Health Day. Why not consider doing something to commemorate it? (I humbly suggest signing the pledge at Partners for Mental Health.)

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