Photo: CC, Sander van der Wel.
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In recent years there’s been a spotlight on mental health. Schools, hospitals, and community leaders seem to be taking the issue more seriously. This is great as a whole, but as a student who has dealt with depression first hand, I know that it’s sometimes difficult to reach out to the many services and lines of support that are now available. Depression is often isolating and it can feel like you’re the only one experiencing these feelings of helplessness. It’s crazy how much the opposite is true. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, “20 per cent of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime,” something I wish I knew at the time. Even though it sometimes still feels taboo to talk about it, I now know that I’m not alone and that these these resources exist for a reason. There is no shame in asking for help.

One of the biggest ways that mental illness has touched my life is through my dad having obsessive-compulsive disorder. Although it was something that affected him his whole life, it reached a peak during my early high school years, which was difficult but eventually made our relationship grow stronger. He was able to reach out and get the help he needed, and this made it easier for me to do the same when I began dealing with my own mental health issues. It also gave me a deeper understanding of the disorder itself and has made me more sensitive and aware of mental illnesses that aren’t focused on as much as anxiety and depression. The experience has also made it much more normalized and easier for me to talk about mental health—people can’t help what they’re going through, and the best thing for you to do is love and support them however you can.

This year I’ve seen two counsellors and one therapist (I learned that yes, there actually is a difference), I’ve been prescribed anti-anxiety medication, and—after an emotionally draining, month-long evaluation—I was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder. While you might be assuming that this has been the worst year of my life, I’m actually so grateful for the chance I’ve gotten to learn about myself and to finally understand that what I struggle with is not something to be ashamed of. Being honest about my disorder has not destroyed my relationships, as I so often feared, but solidified them. The most important lesson I’ve learned? You have to be there for yourself before you can support others—and that’s not selfish, it’s essential.

For the longest time I’ve heard about my cousin’s battle with schizophrenia, but I never really understood the gravity of the situation until I met up with her at a family wedding this summer. Not only did she spend most of the ceremony screaming and crying about invisible demons, but at one point she almost walked right off of a cliff. While genetics obviously play a large part in perpetuating this kind of behaviour, my mom told me afterwards that it goes a lot deeper than that. Turns out my cousin grew up in a neglectful household where her condition was not taken seriously at best, and outright ignored at worst. So, if there’s a lesson to be learned from this awkward family wedding I attended, it’s this: environmental factors, not just genetics, play a large role in determining mental health.

Living with a mental illness isn’t the easiest thing in the world—unsurprisingly. And sometimes, mental illnesses can manifest themselves in a number of ways, from low self-esteem, to depression, to anxiety in basic social settings, which can make it even more difficult to cope. But the most important thing to remember about mental illness is that having one is not a sign of weakness. Rather, the steps you take to continue living a life of value to you is what demonstrates your resilience, whether this means accessing therapy, or working with peers on mental health initiatives on campus. At the end of the day your mental health comes first and, no matter how hectic student life can be, you should always prioritize it above everything else. Remember to always take a step back and give yourself time to breathe.

Learning exceptionalities can be misunderstood and misjudged by people who do not understand them or have no experience with them. This can be a grave detriment to the learner’s self-esteem, affect their mental well-being, and as a result their future trajectory. Be thoughtful of differences, not judgemental.