Five Things You Can Do About Mental Health Stigma

I love #BellLetsTalk Day so much, I want to shout it from the rooftops. But it’s only the beginning — the conversation about mental health doesn’t end here. You can help fight stigma every day by using these strategies:

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Learn to separate fact from fiction.

Mental illness is misunderstood. By learning more about mental illness, you can become a better ally and advocate for people who may not be able to advocate for themselves.

Unlearning some of our assumptions about mental illness can be very difficult. We’re constantly being bombarded with negative messaging around mental illness — think about how many times you’ve heard that depressed people are lazy, or that people with anxiety should just get over it, or that schizophrenic patients are dangerous to society. Think about how easily the media points a finger at mental illness every time there is a mass shooting. (For the last time, mental illness is not the cause of gun violence.) We are constantly being exposed to misinformation about mental illness, which exacerbates the stigma around these issues.

By learning more about the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for different mental health conditions, you can help dismantle false assumptions about mental illness, which will help reduce the stigma around these conditions. A good place to start? This Canadian Mental Health Association list of common myths about mental illness.

And stop using the word “crazy.”

Words matter. According to this Mic.com article, “Using ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ in everyday speech — be it as a throwaway adjective or an insult — can be hurtful to people who live with mental illness.” As Lydia X. Z. Brown puts it, “Using that kind of language sends the message that it’s OK to trivialize mental illness.”

“Crazy” is a filler word, and your brain uses it as a shortcut when it can’t think of a more precise way of describing something. It’s easy to just stop saying it. When speaking or writing, focus on accuracy:

What’s happening in the U.S. is really crazy unbelievable.
My cat starts meowing at 6 a.m. and it’s really driving me crazy ruining my mornings.
I can’t believe this news story about Amanda Bynes, she’s totally crazy dealing with mental health issues and deserves some respect and privacy as she works to get better.

Expand your vocabulary and drop the word “crazy.” I promise you won’t miss it.

Be there for the people around you.

Isolation and loneliness are common by-products of mental health conditions, and they become a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more alone you feel, the less help and support you seek out, which in turn aggravates your condition, which makes you feel even more alone, and so on.

How can we break this cycle? Check in with your friends to show your support. This can mean being a good active listener if your friend wants to vent, or just letting them know you’re there for them if they don’t want to talk. Bell Let’s Talk has a few good phrases you can use to open up a conversation:

  • I’m sorry you aren’t feeling well.
  • I’ve noticed you’ve seemed down lately.
  • Is everything ok?
  • How can I help?

Conversely, here are a few things you should avoid saying to someone who’s dealing with a mental health condition:

  • Relax!
  • Chill out!
  • You’ll get over it.
  • It’s not a big deal.
  • Just think positive.

Little things can make a big difference to someone who’s struggling. Sometimes all you need is for someone to ask how you’re doing.

Use your knowledge to help eradicate the stigma around mental illness.

There’s a lot of shame associated with depression and anxiety. I spent years hiding the way I felt from everyone I knew, including my family and close friends, because I didn’t know much about mental illness and didn’t want to appear dysfunctional in any way. As you can probably guess, that did a lot more harm than good in the long run and I’m still dealing with the after-effects years later.

Stigma silences people and exacerbates their suffering. When you understand the causes and symptoms of mental illness, it becomes easier to talk about it openly, and the more we talk about it openly, the less stigma exists around these issues. So challenge stereotypes, stand up for people, and really listen if someone tells you they’re struggling.

And if you’re worried about your own or a loved one’s well-being, seek help.

According to the CMHA, suicide is one of the leading causes of death in both men and women from adolescence to middle age. It accounts for 24% of all deaths among 15-24 year olds and 16% among 25-44 year olds in Canada.

Those stats break my heart. Death by suicide is preventable, but we need to look out for one another. If you or someone you know is in crisis and requires immediate assistance, call 911 or head to the ER. The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention is launching an integrated Canada-wide distress and crisis line service later this year, but until then, learn to recognize the signs and find a place to get help.

Mental illness isn’t a choice. By showing your support for someone who’s living with a mental health condition, you are contributing to their recovery.

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That’s it for me today. Thanks for following along with my #BellLetsTalk Day posts!

Mental Health Stigma Kept Me Quiet For 10 Years

2017-01-25 12.14.11.jpgBefore things got complicated.

I’ve been living with depression since I was 15 years old. Of course, back then I didn’t know that word applied to me. I had terrible insomnia, and it took me ages to fall asleep every night. This usually meant that I slept through my alarm every morning and had to rush to get ready for school, often forgetting something — my term paper, my gym bag, my breakfast. On weekends, I stayed up all night playing computer games and routinely slept until two or three o’clock in the afternoon. My parents were constantly on my case about my sleeping habits, but I didn’t know how to change, or even how to explain what was happening to me.

I turned down my mom’s offers to see a psychiatrist: every time I took stock of my problems, they seemed too trivial to relate to a professional, and besides, I already felt weird enough as it was and didn’t want to risk being labelled even further. It was the early 00’s, and “real” depressed people were dyeing their hair jet-black and writing songs about self-harm. Everyone, myself included, chalked up my behaviour to run-of-the-mill teen angst. So, instead of getting help, I spent my last two years of high school in a fog, and unsurprisingly, it took a toll on my schoolwork: I had terrible grades and barely graduated.

c516992-r5-13-14Here I am on my last day of high school. I did graduate, but I wish it hadn’t been so difficult.

Every failed exam and terrible high school report card was cause for crushing anxiety. I felt like a complete letdown, which led me to isolate myself from my family and friends even further. The idea of dying was an attractive one. I had no idea what to do after high school; all my friends planned to become doctors or lawyers, but I assumed that my bad grades meant I wasn’t smart enough to go to university, so I didn’t even bother to consider those options. I applied to CEGEP (Quebec’s pre-university college system) and got into a film & media program, where I floundered for three years before moving across the country to go to film school. By then, I knew what depression was, and I knew I had it, but it would be several more years before I figured out how to even begin to cope with and manage the symptoms on a daily basis.

I feel like I wasted so much of my late teens and early 20s living with this mystery disease without being able to give it a name. The stigma was so strong that I felt like I couldn’t even say the word “depression,” let alone associate myself with it or, even worse, seek professional help to deal with the disease. When I look back at that time in my life, I see a lot of missed opportunities, and I wish things had been different. I did eventually muster up the courage to enroll in a university program, and I graduated from Concordia in 2013 with a 4.0 GPA and renewed confidence in my abilities. It didn’t magically solve my mental health issues, but it did help me realize that limiting myself wasn’t doing me any favours.

50249378_00201_0166_mediumProbably my proudest day EVER.

I know what it’s like to suffer in silence, which is why I want to help create space for people to share their stories and end the stigma around mental health. I hope #BellLetsTalk is only the beginning of a year-long conversation.

Why Bell Let’s Talk Day Is So Important to Me

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This is probably my favourite selfie of 2016. According to my phone, I took this at 6:04am on Saturday, May 14th. I was standing in the middle of Maple Leaf Square, in the rain, and I hadn’t slept in over 24 hours. So why do I love this picture so much?

2016 was my first time participating in CAMH’s fundraising initiative, One Brave Night for Mental Health. The premise is simple: participants reach out to their community to raise funds for mental health research, stay up all night on the designated day, and post #OneBraveSelfie at sunrise to commemorate the effort.

I hesitated for a long time before signing up. I had never done any fundraising before, and for my efforts to be successful, I would have to disclose my struggle with depression and anxiety prominently on social media. I was comfortable with sharing this with my friends in-person, but the idea of shouting it from the Facebook rooftops was terrifying.

As I debated whether or not to participate, I kept thinking about my previous experience with social media and mental health: Bell Let’s Talk Day, a yearly event during which Bell donates 5¢ towards mental health initiatives in Canada by counting texts, calls, tweets, Instagram posts, Facebook video views and Snapchat geofilter usage (new this year!).

To be clear, I’m not connected to Bell in any way. I don’t use Bell as my cell phone service provider. But I do use social media a LOT, and the idea of contributing to mental health research appeals to me, so every year on Bell Let’s Talk Day I take the opportunity to tweet as much as possible, mostly about mental health statistics and ways to decrease stigma. It’s a great way to broach the conversation about mental health and participate in an effort that seems to be making a difference.

It was a good start, but it was time to get personal, so I signed up for One Brave Night 2016 and posted about it on Facebook before I had the chance to change my mind. To my surprise, the support I got was overwhelming — I got so much love from friends near and far, and I raised over $800 for CAMH research initiatives. Staying up all night was tough, but I was joined by a dear friend and we spent the whole night eating brownies and Skyping with our friend in Vancouver. I know the funds I raised will make a difference, and I’m really proud of that accomplishment.

Best of all, it helped me realize that sharing my personal stories on social media wasn’t as scary as it seemed. I stopped worrying about whether to post articles and thoughts about mental health issues and just posted them without worrying about what others might think of me. This in turn led to great conversations with friends, acquaintances, and even my parents about the difficulties I face due to mental illness.

Today is Bell Let’s Talk Day, and I plan to use it to the fullest in order to raise as much money as I can and continue the conversation about mental health. It’s so easy to get involved! Here’s how:

Twitter: Each time you tweet on January 25 using #BellLetsTalk, Bell will donate 5¢ more to mental health initiatives. Make sure to follow me @SarahIsrael to see what I’m tweeting about!

Instagram: Each time you post on January 25 using #BellLetsTalk, Bell will donate 5¢ to mental health initiatives. Add me on Instagram (@SarahI) to follow along.

Snapchat: Each time you send a snap using the Bell Let’s Talk geofilter on January 25, Bell will donate 5¢ to mental health initiatives.

Facebook: Head to the Bell Let’s Talk Facebook page and watch their video on January 25, and Bell will donate 5¢ more to mental health initiatives.

If you’re a Bell customer, Bell will donate 5¢ to mental health initiatives for every call you make and every text message you send (iMessage unfortunately doesn’t count).

I’ll also be blogging about mental health throughout the day, so stay tuned for more as the day goes on. And if you’ve read this far, here are a few more pictures from our #OneBraveNight: