By now, most of us are familiar with the #BellLetsTalk campaign – a yearly initiative designed to raise awareness and donations for mental health programs in Canada.
In September 2010, #BellLetsTalk sparked the conversation about mental health, a very important first step. Before that, for many of us our mental illnesses were a secret we carried on our backs, silently, alone.
In the past eight years, #BellLetsTalk has made considerable progress. However, we still have a long way to go in terms of understanding and effectively treating mental illness. We must develop a critical lens and point out areas for development if we are to continue moving forward. In the spirit of #BellLetsTalk, I’m going to get personal.
Mental health (or lack thereof) has always been a central theme in my life. Thankfully, my mother has always been open about her relationship with mental illness and so when I started to recognize the same symptoms in myself, it was very easy to confide in her. I was in ninth grade when I first spoke to my family doctor about how I was feeling.
I was soon diagnosed with anxiety and depression. I started taking Prozac, then Zoloft, then Effexor, then back to Prozac. No matter what I was prescribed, nothing really changed (apart from the blinding headaches and nausea that came with frequently switching medications).
I spent most of high school in my bedroom, sleeping and writing about my experience, trying to make sense of it. I quickly realized the subjectiveness of treatment. What works for one person won’t always work for another. The most important thing is to approach mental health treatment with patience and an open mind.
That being said, I also realized that “full recovery” may not be an option for me. Based on my personal experience and my mother’s lifelong battle with mental illness, I began to consider the possibility that there was no “fixing” it – there was only coping, learning and living in spite of the weight I carry; weight so many of us carry.
This was actually a relief. It gave me the ability to accept myself as I am and stop moving towards some idealized version of mental stability. That is not to say I have stopped seeking treatment. I still see a therapist at Ryerson bi-weekly, but I no longer expect to be “cured”. Instead, we work towards any sort of self-improvement – identifying negative thought patterns and changing the narrative through what’s called dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT).
If you’re not familiar, DBT is a system that attempts to locate problems at the root – in our thought patterns. It involves breaking down ingrained belief systems and developing healthy alternatives through mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness and emotional regulation. Through DBT, we attempt to balance two opposites: acceptance and change. We strive to accept ourselves as we are, knowing that we are doing the best we can. At the same time, we make lots of little changes, knowing that we can also improve.
Now, here’s what I’d like to see more of from #BellLetsTalk: rather than promoting a “recovery narrative”, whereby some spokespeople for the campaign portray a “clean” image of mental health (where recovery is the final destination), could we talk about the nuance of recovery as a process? My mental illnesses probably do not have an expiry date and I’m not the only one. Can we talk about the intersectionality of mental illness – its relationship with poverty, sexual orientation, gender, race, and ability? These are the conversations I’d like to be having. Join me.