10 Things I Have Learned About Mental Illness


1. It’s not my fault. As much as we humans like to be in control of our lives, the likes of depression, anxiety and PTSD are not things we can control. They happen to us, and we deal with them as best we can.

2. It has absolutely no bearing on whether I am a good or a bad person. The fact that I made some bad decisions twenty years ago that triggered a whole mess of crap does not mean I don’t deserve to be happy and well.

3. The fact that an illness exists inside a person’s mind rather than in another part of their body does not make it any less of an illness. Mental illness should be given the same respect as physical illness.

4. Mental illness can, if left untreated, be fatal. Suicide and suicidal ideations are not selfish, as many people believe. They are manifestations of an illness. People contemplating suicide do not necessarily want to die, they simply feel that there is no other course of action available to them.

5. Depression is not the same as sadness. Being depressed is like being in a black pit of despair from which there seems to be no escape.

6. There is not always a reason for depression. If someone tells you that they are experiencing depression, please, please, please don’t say things like, “But you have so many great things in your life to be grateful for.”

7. I am not alone. Although my specific circumstances may be unique to me, I don’t have to look far to find someone who more or less understands what it’s like.

8. Far too many people either die or spend their lives in a state of absolute anguish because they fear the stigma of mental illness, so they choose not to talk about it.

9. Mental illness is the same as physical illness in terms of treatment: what works for one person won’t necessarily work for everyone. You have the right to make choices about your treatment, just as you do for a physical illness.

10. People with mental illnesses can, for the most part and with the right support, function well in society. They can be successful in their careers, make valuable social and economic contributions, and maintain healthy relationships with the people around them.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: Bell Let’s Talk.


How A Different Mindset May Save Lives

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on what is or is not to blame for the Sandy Hook shooting.

I have seen arguments and statistics on both sides of the gun control debate. While I am not personally a fan of every man and his dog having a gun, I have to remind those pushing for gun control that this year we had two shooting sprees within a month of each other. In Toronto. Where there is gun control. On the other hand, countries with gun control do have fewer mass shootings than countries without it.

Then there’s the religion argument. Apparently, “keeping God in the schools” would solve the problem. I don’t mean to sound cynical – not much, anyway – but do proponents of this view really believe that saying the Lord’s Prayer before class every day would have stopped the perpetrator from doing this? Let’s also consider the fact that shootings of this nature rarely happen in secular countries where there is strong separation of church and state.

The shooter “may have” had autism and OCD. Really? Well, the shooter “may have” had hayfever. Does this mean we have to start perpetuating discrimination against people who have hayfever? Yes, the whole idea of autism being to blame is that ridiculous.

We need better access to mental health care. With that one, I think we’re getting closer to the root – or at least one possible root – of the problem. There are some people who are just inherently evil, and nothing we do short of incarcerating them or killing them will stop them from committing unspeakable acts. But there are people who are genuinely sick, who do not get the help they need, and who end up doing things like this. I am in no position to say whether the Sandy Hook shooter fell into this category – I am just making the point that mental illness, when left unchecked, can have terrible, tragic consequences.

Mental illness is like just about every other illness or condition on the face of the planet. The earlier it is detected and treated, the better. We could talk all day about how mental health facilities need to be more easily available to those who need them. Few would argue the validity of helping people who need to be helped.

But the challenge begins before the mentally ill person even gets to the point of discovering that the help they need may be hard to come by.

We live in a society that, say what you like, is not very accepting of mental illness. I mean that in a very literal sense: there is a deep-seated reluctance in many people to acknowledge that there is such a thing as mental illness. I have a list of mental health issues, including no less than four different kinds of depression. When I have tried to enlist the support of those around me like the websites say you should, I have been hit with stuff like this:

* “You’re depressed because you’re dwelling on the past.”

* “All you need to do is change your attitude.”

* “You need to have more consideration for your family.”

* “You need to choose to be happy.”

And my personal favourite:

* “You need to snap out of it.”

When people with mental illnesses are bombarded with messages like this, what are the chances of them actually being motivated to seek professional help? If someone has depression, anxiety, PTSD or any other mental illness, the last thing they need is for a doctor to tell them they are imagining it, or that they are somehow to blame. Many people in that position do not seek help because that is exactly the response they fear.

The truth is that mental illness is very real, and very frightening to those who experience it. It is not something that can be fixed through a simple change of attitude. You cannot just “snap out of it”. People who commit suicide are not, as many believe, “just thinking of themselves”. They have simply reached a point where they cannot see a way forward.

Just over a decade ago, when I was a new arrival in Canada, Toronto news was full of a terrible story about a woman who had leaped into the path of an oncoming subway train while holding her six-month-old baby. The baby died instantly, but the mother hung on in hospital for a while before succumbing to her injuries. The public was outraged. How could this woman have deprived her child of life? What kind of monster was she?

The story unfolded to reveal a woman who was so desperate that she didn’t know what to do. Following the birth of her child, she was caught in the grip of post-partum depression. She did not receive the help that she needed in spite of having told her nearest and dearest that she was depressed and frightened. They just didn’t understand the depths of the problem, and in all likelihood, she was too ashamed to go to a professional.

Do I condone what that mother did? No, of course not. I never think it is OK for someone to kill their child or anyone else. But having gone through post-partum depression (which, by the way, was untreated for over a year because I felt too ashamed to seek help), I can appreciate just how scared and depressed and absolutely hopeless she probably felt.

People with mental illnesses need to be encouraged to seek help for their conditions. In order to accomplish that, we need to change the way we think about mental illness. People who have mental health problems need to stop being told that it is “all in their head” or that they have the power to change things under their own steam. They need to be given the message that help is available to them and that there is no shame in seeking it out.

Reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness would not fix everything that is wrong with the world. It would not eliminate all tragedies. But there is a very good chance that it would save some lives.

(Photo credit: Steven de Polo. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)


Too Much Information?

Today’s prompt in the National Health Blog Post Month challenge invites participants to talk about disclosure. How do we decide what to share and what not to share in our posts?

This is a question I grapple with from time to time, as all bloggers should. As soon as you put any aspect of your life onto the Internet, you can say goodbye to privacy. Sometimes that really doesn’t matter. There’s no danger in me posting my race times and less-than-flattering photographs of myself in motion. Any Joe on the street can go online and look up my race times anyway. Since that information is publicly available, I may as well post it in my blog where I can brag about it a little.

I am equally open about my son’s autism and the challenges it presents to my family. This is where the question of disclosure becomes a little tricky, because I am being open about people other than myself. There are certain things that I will not discuss on the Internet, but in general I talk quite freely about the lives of my kids, and to a lesser extent, my husband. It is one thing for me to talk about myself, but my right to make that decision on behalf of my children is a bit of a gray area.

My blog serves multiple purposes. It’s a form of expression for my socially anxious, bad-at-verbal-conversation self. Writers as a breed tend to be a little neurotic and introverted, and I am no exception. This is how we communicate. Writing gives us a voice that we wouldn’t otherwise have.

Apart from fulfilling my own need for self-expression, my blog gives hope to other parents of special needs children who might be feeling a little lost and alone. From time to time, I get emails from readers telling me how my writing has made them feel less overwhelmed, and more able to cope. Those emails make everything truly worthwhile, because at the end of the day, what I want is to do my small part to make the world a better place for our kids, for the parents and siblings, for everybody.

At the same time, I hope to smash the stigmas surrounding autism, and the way I see it, the best way to do that is to be frank about it all. People are afraid of what they don’t understand, and in talking about autism, I hope to give it a human face, to give people the message that although there are little kids with autism, they are first and foremost little kids.

There are aspects of my kids’ lives that I will never talk about on my blog. My basic rule is this: if I cannot talk about it in public, I cannot talk about it on my blog. I agonize over many of my posts, weighing the benefits of sharing information against the risk of anyone getting hurt. I have written entire posts and then deleted them without publishing them.

It’s a delicate balancing act sometimes, and I find that as long as I listen to my gut instinct, it’s OK.

How do you decide what information to share on your blog? Have you ever shared something and later regretted it?

(Photo credit: John “Pathfinder” Lester. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)


The Truth About Postpartum Depression

I am participating in the 2012 Wordcount Blogathon, which means one post every day for the month of May.

I am also part of a Mental Health Month blog party that’s happening today.

When I landed in Canada almost twelve years ago, the news waves were buzzing with an unfolding tragedy. A young woman, caught in the grip of postpartum depression, had launched herself into the path of an oncoming subway train while holding her weeks-old baby daughter. The baby had died instantly, while the mother hung on in hospital, never regaining consciousness, before she died several weeks later.

The public, including, I confess, myself, practically fell over themselves in their haste to judge this woman for killing an innocent child. Like many people, I was operating under the smug self-righteousness of someone who’s “never been there”. I didn’t have children at that time, therefore I had never experienced postpartum depression. Although I was very familiar with regular depression, and had frequently thought self-destructive thoughts, it had never stretched to me being at risk of hurting another person.

As much as people wanted to be judgmental, there was one particular element of this story that bothered me a great deal. The woman had sought help for postpartum depression and not received it. She had reached out, hoping someone would grab her hand and save her from drowning. In the aftermath of the tragedy, no-one was saying, “If only I had known,” but a number of people were saying, “If only I had helped.”

Back then, postpartum depression was not really taken seriously. People associated it with mothers who killed their children, mothers who were dubbed as “monsters”.

I got hit with a hefty dose of reality when postpartum depression settled over me like a heavy, oppressive blanket after the birth of my second child. I realized that I had been so wrong about this condition, and that its manifestations are as unique and varied as the individuals who suffer from it.

The media, being the media, tends to sensationalize tragedy, and tragedy resulting from postpartum depression is no exception. In the absence of other information, other sources of awareness, is it any wonder that the unknowing public would associate postpartum depression with the killing of babies? That’s what the media has taught society, and it’s not exactly a subject that the average person is going to go and Google.

Media treatment of postpartum depression, along with the resulting generalizations that people make about it, are largely responsible for the fact that many women are too ashamed and scared to seek the help they need. I myself did not seek help, and in fact I would never have been treated had my doctor not noticed that something was way off during a visit for a foot complaint.

There is a great deal of stigma surrounding mental illness in general, and postpartum depression in particular takes a big hit of it. The women who fall victim to it are dealing with so much more than depression. They are also feeling intense guilt and the sense of being “abnormal”. I mean, you have this gorgeous new baby who is supposed be a source of great joy and immeasurable love, and the whole thing has turned into a pear-shaped nightmare. The moms also feel fear that is beyond words. They are terrified that during some moment of insanity, they will hurt their children. They want to die just to save their babies from being raised by terrible mothers.

I could quote numbers at you. I could tell you how many women suffer from postpartum depression in Canada, the United States, and internationally. But whatever numbers I gave you would be completely meaningless. They would not include the scores of women who do not seek help, receive a diagnosis, or get treated.

If I was in charge, postpartum depression information would be included in the education packages that are given to new mothers, whether they are having their first, second or tenth child. When the hospitals handed out their leaflets about breastfeeding and developmental milestones, they would also be handing out information sheets about postpartum depression, along with fridge magnets printed with the telephone number of a crisis line.

The new mother’s partner, or some other designated support person, would be educated on the signs of postpartum depression. They would be taught what warning signs to look for, and what to do if they saw them.

If I was in charge, mothers would be regularly screened for postpartum depression for up to two years following the births of their babies – because it can take that long to strike.

There would be public awareness campaigns. The media would devote more attention to postpartum depression as a genuine medical issue to be handled with caring and compassion. They would stop the practice of only giving this condition the time of day in the wake of tragedies.

In my perfect world, women are not blamed for having this debilitating and often life-threatening condition.

They are helped through their times of terrible darkness, and they emerge bright and beautiful, like butterflies from a cocoon, and they enjoy rich, fulfilling lives filled with the laughter of their children.


Mental Illness: Don’t Be Ashamed

I am participating in the 2012 Wordcount Blogathon, which means one post every day for the month of May.

Today’s post is written in observance of Mental Health Awareness Month, which runs through May.

Several years ago, as I sat nursing my newborn baby, I watched a talk show in which Tom Cruise said something to the effect of post-partum depression not being a real condition. All these moms needed, he said, was to follow good exercise and nutrition plans, and they wouldn’t have a problem. He was convinced, he said, because he had done research.

The timing of this talk show, with its rantings by someone who by definition will never know what post-partum depression is like, could not have been worse. I was in the thick of post-partum depression myself at the time, and although my particular brand of it never included a desire to hurt my child, fantasies of my own death were a very real part of my life.

I did not seek help for my condition, and in fact I would never have been treated for it had my family doctor not noticed that something was amiss during a visit for something completely unrelated. I had a whole set of issues with that particular doctor, but I fully credit him for saving my life. That’s how close I was to the edge of the cliff.

The fact that I suffered from post-partum depression at all was no surprise to me. If anything, I had been surprised when it hadn’t struck after the birth of my first son.

Even as a teenager, I was prone to bouts of depression. My parents were not really aware of it, and on the few occasions when someone actually noticed that I was not OK, it was always put down to adolescent hormones.

“You’ll grow out of it,” people told me.

Except I didn’t. My depression continued into adulthood, coming in waves that sometimes threatened to drown me completely. It would hit completely without warning, hang around for weeks or months or even years, and then disappear just as suddenly.

During my teens I blamed hormones. For two decades after that, I blamed myself. I blamed the fact that some unwise choices I made during my college years led to trauma that had a lasting effect.

I didn’t seek help. Of course I didn’t. My depression and everything that went with it was my own fault, right? I didn’t deserve to be helped.

When it came down to it, the mental health issues that I have experienced throughout most of my life – be it post-partum depression, good old garden-variety depression, anxiety, and everything else – have been a source of shame to me.

And that, my friends, is a big problem in our society. Too many lives are destroyed and lost because people suffering from mental illnesses feel too ashamed or embarrassed to seek help. Feelings of unworthiness and self-blame act as barriers to the pursuit of inner peace and happiness.

Tom Cruise sitting on his high horse effectively blaming mothers for a debilitating and often life-threatening condition did not help the cause of the mental health community one little bit.

Eventually, just over a year ago, I finally made the very difficult decision to seek professional help. The road since then has not been smooth. With the guidance of my therapist, I am reliving past traumas and undergoing oft-uncomfortable introspection in search of the roots of the conditions that plague me. But I at least know that I am heading somewhere other than a dead end.

My quest for mental health is by far the hardest thing for me to write about.  Because in spite of the steps that I have taken to get help, I have not quite managed to shake the decades-old conviction that this is something for me to be ashamed and embarrassed about.

If I stay silent, though, I remain a part of the problem of the stigma associated with mental illness.

In starting to speak out, however tentatively, I hope to become a part of the solution.

(Photo credit: This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)