How to talk about mental health

People everywhere are jumping on board the Bell Let’s Talk Day by sharing messages of support via social media and in person, and for very good reason. Mental health affects all of us, in so many ways.

When you look at the statistics, the numbers are staggering. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association:

  • One in five Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime.
  • Suicide accounts for nearly a quarter of all deaths among 15- to 24-year-olds. It’s one of the leading causes, second only to accidents. Canada’s youth suicide rate is the third highest in the industrialized world.
  • About half of the people who feel they’ve suffered from depression or anxiety have never seen a doctor about it.
  • Only one in five Canadian children who need mental health services receive them.

When you break these numbers down to the individuals behind them, the stories will break your heart. Ten-year-old girls committing suicide. First responders struggling to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. New mothers taken by post-partum depression. Sometimes these stories make the news and are momentarily spotlighted. Too often they are ignored.

This is why we need the Bell Let’s Talk Day. We all have a responsibility to participate in the conversation. We all have a story to tell. Some big. Some small. Here’s mine.

I read a lot of baby books and waiting room pamphlets before my first child was born, so I was well aware that post-partum depression and anxiety was a thing, but I never believed it was a thing that could happen to me. I was far more concerned about other things, like baby flathead syndrome, which I had just recently learned of. And whooping cough, which had once again reared it’s ugly head. And whether I’d be able to keep it together during delivery.

And all of that went fine. My daughter was born. We both left the hospital relatively unscathed. I rotated her like clockwork to ensure her beautiful cranium remained perfectly round. And my fury at non-vaccinators who’d allowed whooping cough to make a comeback gradually died away. All was well.

But as the days turned to weeks, I found myself unable to sleep. Instead, I’d lay awake for hours, with my newborn sleeping soundly in the bassinet beside me, convincing myself that I had made a terrible mistake. Because the world we live in can be a real crap-hole at times. And how selfish was I to bring a perfect human being into said crap-hole, knowing full well that it was impossible for me to keep her safe?

There were too many risks. Too many dangers. Pedophiles. Natural disasters. War. Drunk drivers. Methamphetamines. Bullies. Horrifying illnesses. Death. I ran numerous and varied scenarios over and over in my head. What would I do if someone broke into the house while I was feeding her dinner? What would I do if we were in a head-on collision? What would I do if … but no matter how hard I tried to come up with a foolproof plan, I always failed.

My mind was hooked on an endless array of waking nightmares from which it could not escape.

But the days were better. During the days, everything felt fine. Until it wasn’t. Until I watched a commercial about impoverished children. Or an episode of CSI. Or the evening news.

I bawled my eyes out over The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, after the scene where the Narnian soldiers are ambushed and slaughtered. Yes, I know, it’s a movie for kids. Yes, I know, Narnians aren’t real. But somewhere in the world, at that very moment (and this moment now), friends were being forced to leave friends behind to die. Parents were losing their children. People were suffering. For weeks, I couldn’t stop thinking about the dying Narnians and the human casualties of war.

I could not stop.

And then one day, seemingly out of the blue, I felt like my old self again. And I realized how unlike my old self I had been. Like when you don’t notice how dark it’s getting until someone flips on the light.

I now believe I was dealing with undiagnosed postpartum anxiety. Undiagnosed because I never talked about it with my doctor, even though I trusted him immensely. I never talked about it with anyone. At least not until I was pregnant with my second child and it dawned on me that it could happen again. That’s when I finally told my husband, because I needed him to be aware so that he could watch out for me, in case I experienced the same struggles, or worse. In case I couldn’t see it in myself.

But I only told him. No one else.

Part of the reason I didn’t talk about it was because I didn’t recognize that something was wrong until it wasn’t wrong anymore. And afterward, I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to be dramatic. Compared to some, my experience really wasn’t that bad. I didn’t want to be that person complaining about a paper cut when someone else has a broken leg.

But mostly I didn’t want to be judged. It’s easy to say ‘let’s talk’. It’s a lot harder to do.

Mental illness — in any form — is scary to many people. It’s scary because we often don’t understand it. And when we’re scared, instead of trying to understand, we look for ways to separate ourselves from it.

People do this all of the time. When a woman is assaulted. When a child is hurt. When someone gets sick. We look for the things that they must have done wrong. We look for things that we can avoid or do differently so that it won’t happen to us or to the people we love.

And if we can’t think of a good reason why we’re immune, we prescribe an easy fix. Because, hey, it can’t be that scary if it’s easy to fix, right?

Problem with your mental health? No worries! Just exercise more. Get fresh air. Express gratitude. You’ve seen the memes. We give really bad advice.

And if that doesn’t work, sometimes we just turn away.

But Bell is right. We can’t turn away. We have to talk. We have to tell our stories, even if we think they’re small. Because maybe hearing our small story will give someone the courage to tell their bigger one.

And more importantly, we have to listen. We have to offer our support and acknowledge that we’re all in this together. And while we may not understand what someone is going through, we care and we will try.

For more information on how you can support mental health services or access help for yourself or someone you love, visit the Bell Let’s Talk website or contact one of the many other great organizations dedicated to mental health, including these:

One thought on “How to talk about mental health”

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