Mt. A students exchange stories to help fight stigma surrounding mental illness
The Mount Allison student society Change Your Mind hosted Elephant in the Room on Thursday, Oct. 29 in the Convocation Hall foyer. Five students spoke to the audience about their experiences with mental illness.
Elephant in the Room is a nationwide anti-stigma campaign sponsored by the Mood Disorders Society of Canada. Schools and organizations across the country host events which aim to decrease the stigma around mental illness.
The event was emceed by biology student Alanna Stewart, who spoke about her experience with bipolar disorder and shared an excerpt from a poem she wrote about her illness. Stewart encouraged students to take advantage of the resources available to them and educate themselves about the realities of mental illness. Stewart said her experiences included a total of six hospital visits and various manifestations of mania before she eventually reached out and found help. “I see my illness as a positive thing,” she said. “It made me stronger.”
Caity Brawn, a third-year environmental science student, spoke about what she described as “a story of running away.” Brawn said she attempted to escape her depression, anxiety and substance abuse before realising that “that is not how these things work.” In her earliest experiences with mental illness, Brawn said she doesn’t think she “had the language to accurately describe what [she] was going through.”
“I knew all the resources, I knew all the science, but I still couldn’t acknowledge that I needed to reach out,” said Brawn. She said her friends inspired her to look after her mental health. “A couple weeks ago, my friend saw some of my scars, and I covered them up.” Brawn said she was struck when her friends told her not to hide them. “From now on, that’s how I want to model my life; there’s no need to hide your mental health. If you need help, it’s okay to ask,” said Brawn.
Shekhar Dewan, a first-year arts student, emphasized the importance of discussing mental health with peers. Dewan said he kept his struggle with anxiety and depression to himself until he realized he wasn’t the only one experiencing these difficulties. “The difference between listening to advice and listening to someone’s experience,” said Dewan, “is that when you are given advice, you think of all the reasons why it doesn’t apply to you. When somebody shares their experience, you do everything you can to empathize with and relate to it.”
Cydney Kane described her firsthand experience with both physical and mental illness. Kane, a third-year biology student and a 10-year survivor of kidney disease, said she recognizes how the stigma around mental illness alters society’s view and treatment of those struggling with their mental health. Kane said she was “never made to feel less than” when she was physically ill, but experienced a different reaction from those around her when dealing with her mental illness.
“I’m done hiding it. I want to talk about it,” said Alex Strang, a third-year psychology student who spoke about living with bulimia. “‘Normal’ doesn’t always mean ‘healthy,’” said Strang, whose friends saw her as the picture of health and happiness even when she was at her most ill. “Eating disorders use your body as a way to measure your entire worth and value because you can’t find it anywhere else,” said Strang, who went on to describe how she dismissed the severity of her condition for as long as possible, even when it began to cause her serious heart problems. When she finally realized how serious her disorder was, Strang found support in her friends, despite her reluctance during recovery. “Fulfilling some stupid aesthetic ideal won’t sustain you,” said Strang. “What sustains you, and what feeds you, are moments of connection with people you love.”
Third-year psychology student John Bulman said he had his first run-in with depression in high school and continued to struggle with it in university, coinciding with rising academic and athletic pressures. Before he sought help, Bulman also struggled with attempted suicide. He encouraged listeners to ask for help when they need it and to continue the conversation around mental illness. “My story is not finished,” Bulman said. “It is a story in the making. And hopefully I stimulated a potential story-telling of your own.”