Learning to love Elephant in the Room

Last Wednesday I left Elephant in the Room in a blissful haze of acceptance, love and validation – but my feelings about the event have not always been this warm. The anti-stigma student speaker series began when Change Your Mind, the group that organizes it, was formed during my first year. I remember how much hype surrounded the first Elephant in the Room event, and how very uninterested I was in hearing from other people about their mental illnesses. I didn’t see the relevance of others’ stories to my life, and subsequently, I chose not to attend.

I don’t recall exactly why I decided to go to the event in my second year, but I believe it had something to do with regretting not having heard one of my closest friends speak the year prior and having begun to recognize how much the event had meant to them. Sitting in Tweedie Hall, I was overwhelmed by the degree to which others’ experiences spoke to my own. People I had never met were describing my life with such precision, it was all I could do to hold back my tears until the event concluded.

Jeff Mann/Argosy
Jeff Mann/Argosy

But I also worried that if others who shared my diagnoses had “gotten better” and I had not, perhaps I was somehow “doing my mental illness wrong.” I left the event feeling very emotional. As I tried to manoeuvre through the crowd to leave and find some privacy, another member of my residence – who later joined the Change Your Mind executive with me – spotted my distress and offered to walk me home. In retrospect, I realize that this too is part of the Elephant in the Room experience: finding solidarity in those who understand without explanation. I joined the Change Your Mind executive the following year and have been a part of it now for three years.

As a graduating student, I finally applied to speak at this year’s Elephant in the Room. It was a long time coming. I considered the risks briefly: diagnoses shared through event promotion would remain online long after, possibly jeopardizing job prospects. It is not the first time I have weighed these risks. As my comfort with being vulnerable online has grown, so too have the number of warnings I receive from well-intentioned friends, family members and others. But I will almost certainly always live with mental illness and am unashamed to admit it. And while risks do exist, my privilege lessens them significantly. We only strengthen stigma by staying silent. The opportunity to share my story in front of a willing audience and, in doing so, help break down stigma – the effects of which I know all too well – made the decision to speak at this point in my life an easy one.

I am accustomed to hiding my struggles with mental illness, and I pay my psychologist to listen to them. To have over one hundred students and staff come by choice on a weeknight to bear witness to my story, in its uncomfortable and messy truth, was heartwarming and transformative beyond words. Over one hundred people showed up for my fellow speakers and me, and for one another. We shared a space in which we could speak openly and candidly about the realities of living with mental illness without judgment. We listened, and we healed.

These numbers are telling. Elephant in the Room creates something essential that seems to be lacking elsewhere, both on campus and in our lives. Last Wednesday I felt seen, heard, accepted, validated and perhaps even understood. Thank you to all those who took part in that. I hope you felt the same. And to my fellow speakers, thank you for your vulnerability, and thank you for your teaching. Elephant in the Room has come to occupy a special place in my heart and I hope the event will continue for many years to come.

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