Recently, my good friend Ashley told me that she was affected by mental illness. I think it came up in a conversation as we were discussing mental health, but I remembered feeling surprised. Then, I felt surprised at feeling surprised… I mean, how could I have known? It was wrong of me to think that Ashley didn’t have a mental illness because she didn’t “look” like someone who was being affected by mental illness. What does mental illness even “look” like? It’s different for everybody, it doesn’t take a particular form or shape, and it’s impossible to tell who it’s affecting. When Ashley registered my surprised look, she added, “I don’t normally tell people about my mental illness.”
To gain some more insight, I asked Ashley to discuss her experiences with facing mental illness, and some of her thoughts on the subject.
Hi! Thanks for joining me for this interview.
No problem! This is a topic I’m really interested in.
Do you want to introduce yourself?
I’m a first year student at McMaster University, studying in the faculty of Humanities. I would tell you what I want to major in, but I haven’t quite figured it out yet.
Is it weird that I felt surprised when you told me about your mental illness?
Nah. I mean, maybe it was just unexpected. But the statistics are really high… something like one out of every three people are affected by mental illness. And you can’t really tell who’s being affected.
So, you said that you didn’t tell people about your mental illness. Do you want to elaborate on that?
Yeah. I don’t like revealing my mental illness since I’m not big on the idea of people thinking it’s my defining feature. Like, it’s an illness, not a personality trait. So if it’s not relevant in the conversation, it doesn’t need to be brought up.
That makes sense. In the past, did people often think of mental illness as your defining feature?
Not really. But I knew someone who made her illness a defining feature. It got to the point where it was all she could talk about. I mean, it’s great that she wanted to put herself out there, but people felt weird hanging around her. She started to be known as “that girl with the illness.” I didn’t want to be like that.
I understand that there’s a professional support system for mental health at your school. How is it?
To be honest, I don’t know. I haven’t used it.
What’s stopping you from using it?
Well, I’ve heard that the appointments are always crazy booked. And I’m not really drawn to the idea of going there, setting up an appointment, waiting for someone to get back to you… I also get anxious about setting it up.
Maybe they should change something about that.
Yeah! They definitely should. I know that the school doesn’t let your parents make the appointment for you, and I wish they would. It would make me feel way more comfortable.
How are you finding the support from other students and faculty?
I think it’s been good so far. I’ve had experiences with getting extremely anxious before presentations or big assignments, and everyone is pretty supportive. I’ve had some great professors who gave me some extra time to work on projects, and then follow-up to make sure that I was okay. They really stressed the importance of mental health, and I don’t take their help for granted. However, I think there’s a big difference in what your behaviour is. Like, if you’re depressed and irritable, I find that someone is less likely to help you. But if you’re depressed and crying, people are more likely to help you. This is just something I’ve noticed, but I really do appreciate the support that my school provides.
What are some of your coping methods to help you with your anxiety?
I’m a huge fan of art therapy. It’s something I’ve been really into for a while. The calmness of painting a picture, or that single-mindedness that you get from coloring — it’s just great. It clears your head and helps you relax. I would recommend art therapy for everyone. Another thing… breathing. It might sound cliché, but I find that practicing some breathing techniques is helpful. If you’re in a situation, like, let’s say you’re having a panic attack, you can always go back to breathing. It’s a way to calm yourself down and slow some crazy thoughts.
Let’s talk about stigma. Has this been a problem for you in the past?
Honestly, it hasn’t. Maybe I just don’t hang around with shitty people, but I do feel like stigma is less severe for anxiety. I think it has something to do with mental illnesses that are associated with violence. For example, someone with schizophrenia might seem freaky to others, simply because it carries this stigma of violent behaviour. It’s really unfortunate. Also, in the case of being anxious, no one ever accuses you of being attention-seeking. When you have anxiety, people automatically think that it means you hate attention on yourself. But there’s stigma around other mental illnesses, like self-harm and eating disorders, where people can accuse you of doing it for the attention. It sucks.
Do you have any final thoughts?
Definitely! My final thoughts are to emphasize the importance of stopping stigma with mental illness. This isn’t new, but I can’t stress it enough. We have to teach people about it in school — the earlier the better. Mental health is important for everyone. People aren’t getting themselves diagnosed and they aren’t getting the help they need. They think, “Oh, that’s not me, I’m not one of those people!” And what ends up happening is a whole bunch of people don’t get treatment or proper care. Some might suffer their entire lives without reaching for professional treatment, simply because they didn’t have the knowledge. My cousin told her parents that she had problems with anxiety, and her family denied it. They told her to stop pretending. It crushed her, and she didn’t get help for a very long time.
Wow, that’s awful. It’s definitely important to spread awareness.
Absolutely. Mental illness shouldn’t be a battle you have to face alone.