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Written by Vanessa Stewart

Don't call me 'crazy'

20/04/2015 10:29:16 AM | 4 comments |
My name is Vanessa Stewart. I started talking about my mental illness at the 2013 Ride Don’t Hide bicycle event. It was one of the rare times I had left the house to go anywhere that year, let alone to a mental health event. I hadn’t spoken to anyone about my mental illness and was having trouble doing activities I once loved due to the onset of depression.
 
I didn’t plan on telling anyone about my illness, and instead was very secretive about it, telling only my close friends and family. I had tremendous fear of being judged and looked down upon. Worries filled my mind, like what if I was singled out as the only one there with a mental illness. At the time, 18 months after my diagnosis, I was the only person I knew with depression. But I showed up, with my parents, very reluctantly. We unloaded our bikes and entered the event, and I was blown away by hundreds of helmet-wearing participants, all wearing Ride Don’t Hide bibs, most of which carried the name of a person they were riding for, a person they knew and loved with mental illness.
 
I, of course, kept mine blank as I still didn’t want others knowing that I had shown up with this disease. I had no idea so many people were affected by mental illness and suffered like I did. It was mind-blowing for me.
 
The ride was exhilarating. And shortly after we returned from the ride to the stadium, my dad was approached by a reporter. I’m used to reporters recognizing him as the Mayor of Coquitlam. And as usually happens, the reporter asked him what the event meant to him and his community. As dad started to answer, I stepped out from behind him to speak: ‘He’s here because of me…I suffer from a mental illness.’ No one moved. No one said a word. I started to tell the reporter about my journey, and then dad asked me, ‘Are you really ready for this, Vanessa?’, and I replied, ‘Yes…yes, I am.’
 
When my story came out in the paper a few days later, my sister and Dad posted it to my Facebook page. What happened next almost knocked me over.
 
My fears and trepidations were quickly replaced by different emotions entirely. All the comments were positive and encouraging. Never in my wildest dreams had I thought so many people would support me and want to help me in overcoming this disease, including some who acknowledged their own struggles. I felt free, liberated, like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Like I no longer had to be ashamed of this label that had been attached to my entire life for the past year and a half. I had defined myself by this mental illness and all the negative things I had heard about it.
 
I didn’t want to share it with anyone for fear of being judged, having it seen as a flaw, something negative, or the result of laziness. Prior to my diagnosis, I knew almost nothing about mental illness. I didn’t know the types of mental illness, or even how many people were affected. It had been put into my own head that it was something to fear, that you had to be a certain kind of person to be affected. That it was just something that happened to lazy people, people who couldn’t manage, people who wanted time off work, people who were faking it. I was naïve. I was uneducated.
 
From that moment on, I blogged, did interviews and spoke about how I wish people would view mental illness as they would any other illness, so that those who suffer wouldn’t do so alone.
 
From then on I wrote freely about my mental illness. I shared to the Facebook world my hospitalization with a severe depressive episode in October 2014. I recounted the real struggles I had been having with stigma and fears surrounding my mental health. I was open and honest about answering people’s questions and didn’t hold anything back. I wanted to make sure people were educated as I had not been. I started the discussion.
 
Healthier You magazine asked me to share, based on my experience, how I think the stigma associated with mental illness like mine can be erased. Here are my five suggestions for all of you who are lucky enough to be mentally well.
 

1. Think about your own perceptions about mental illness.

We don’t define people by their heart disease, cancer or broken arm. We sign their cast, we encourage and we help as best we can to accommodate them and their illness. We should do this with mental illness. It’s just like any physical illness and we need to treat it that way. I am a great person, illness or not; my illness shouldn’t define me.
 
We should be able to look at the person and not judge based on an illness, but instead accept them for who they are.
 
I think we all need to be a little more accepting of the differences we all bring. We all are judgmental, and I challenge you to try to be a little more open when talking to anyone about any struggle they are having.
 
We don’t know others’ situations and if we take the time to listen, we’ll see that mental illness does not define a person. I have been there myself, feeling nervous about someone who boards the SkyTrain and sits next to me talking to themselves. But especially now, I try my best to be open-minded and to smile. Our perceptions of mental illness are important.
 
Three years ago, I had no idea what depression was. Depression feels like a dark hole. For me, depression was having no passion, no feelings, no drive to do anything; I have been so down that I didn’t leave my bed for weeks. It left me feeling like if the world stopped right then and didn’t ever start again it wouldn’t matter. It’s a sadness that I can’t escape or run away from. It is a darkness that takes me over, ruining hopes and dreams and turning them into dust, leaving me grasping in vain to find just a little bit of feeling.
 
Keeping that in mind and offering compassion in that moment can help us all become more accepting of others’ differences.
 

2. Choose your words thoughtfully.  

It’s not alright to joke about or label people with a mental illness. I am not ‘lazy’, ‘faking it’ or ‘sketchy’. I am not ‘crazy’, ‘bipolar’ or ‘cuckoo’. And I am not my illness. I am Vanessa Stewart, a person – daughter, sister and pet owner. I am 22 years old, I like hanging out with my friends, I study psychology and criminology, and I tutor at college. I am everything else besides a mental illness.
 
I am having trouble right now. I am in a depressive episode and am trying to manage my life. But that doesn’t take away from all the positive things that I am. I am a hard worker, and am passionate, driven, and fun.  I have a mental illness, but it does not define me. I am everything else besides my mental illness.
 
Be careful when making suggestions. For a person with severe depression, it isn’t helpful to suggest that he or she simply ‘think happy thoughts‘, or ‘try to take on a hobby’; those types of suggestions only drove me deeper into despair, as I was left knowing that nobody understood.
 
Please choose your words carefully and kindly.
 

3. Educate yourself, just a little.

Unfortunately, mental illness wasn’t in my high school curriculum, nor in my first-year BCIT Architectural Engineering program. Mental illness just wasn’t brought up. I didn’t know anyone who had it. I had never been affected by it. I was naïve, I didn’t know. And worse, I didn’t know that I didn’t know.
 
Prior to my diagnosis, I had thought – like most people – that depression was when people got sad and just stayed that way. I couldn’t imagine how a person with a good life could feel intense sadness and depression.
 
After I was diagnosed with major depression and anxiety in 2012, I started researching my condition; I learned that it’s the result of a chemical imbalance in my brain. And I learned, to my surprise, that sufferers can be successfully treated.
 
If more people learn about mental illness and how it affects those who suffer, society can help reduce misperceptions and stereotypes, and can help those with these illnesses.
 

4. Offer support, even if you’re unsure what to say.

I count myself as fortunate that my family and friends came to visit me while I was in the psychiatric unit in hospital. We found it heartbreaking that not everyone had visitors. Some patients told me about how their families respond negatively to mental illness, how secrets must be kept. When you have a mental illness you’re simply ill; you shouldn’t have to suffer alone, in silence, for fear of being ostracized.
 
So, if you don’t know what to say, then just listen. Be open and kind, and listen. Listening is key. Just being there for someone, even if you’re unsure how to help, can make a difference. Reaching out to those who are struggling with a mental illness can help their recovery.
 

5. Don’t be afraid to hear the truth.

It would be so great if all of us who have these issues could talk about our health, openly and freely, without fear of judgment. It would help make things feel ‘normal’ if when a friend asks, ‘How are you doing?’ we could honestly answer, ‘I’m not feeling well today, I’m feeling really down.’
 
The friend could then say, ‘It’s okay, we’ll work on it together’, rather than give uneducated advice, or write you off as just having a ‘down’ day. I want people to ask me how I’m doing and not be afraid of my truthful answer. If my arm was broken, nobody would be offended, nobody would shy away from it, nobody would change the subject.
 
The only thing about this subject that needs changing is society’s attitudes, prejudices and judgments.

This article was published in the Healthier You magazine: Spring 2015.  Read the full magazine online.

 

Comments
Heather
I once suffered from depression, anxiety and panic attacks, it was an extremely lonely and terrifying time in my life and my family's life too. We were all very ill -equipped to deal with me. That was about 18 years ago now and it took me 5 full years to feel normal. My way of describing how I felt during that time was that I was seeing the world differently than everyone else around me. I longed to feel normal, not happy, just normal. Living in and through a mental illness truly does help you to be more understanding & compassionate of others who suffer. And the more I talk about my experience the more I realize just how many of my friends and family suffer or have suffered from some form of depression. My hope for you is that you find your normal soon.
24/04/2015 8:31:51 AM

Anita Lo
Hi Vanessa,
Nicely written and indeed inspiring! I can relate to this as we, too, have a daughter, who suffer from what exactly you have. Is this ok to share with other people outside of FH?
24/04/2015 8:13:28 AM

Heidi Beckerleg
Vanessa, you are VERY brave, and I applaud you for sharing your story. I too advocate for education and removing the stigma from mental illness. The term "mental" sounds scary to people...I defuse it by defining it as just meaning in our head, above the shoulders. For people who sarcastically joke "it's all in your head", I tell them YES, it IS in our heads! That is a LOCATION just like HEART is for heart disease. It should not imply anyone is making anything up! Kudos for you!!!!
23/04/2015 12:29:00 PM

Lark
good information for those young adults dealing with stigma
23/04/2015 12:18:40 PM

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