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Mental health doesn’t end at awareness

Melanie Woods, November 23, 2015 —

have chronic joint pain. When it started to affect my day-to-day life, I went to a doctor who diagnosed me with hyperextended joints. Now I wear knee braces when I exercise and have painkillers for particularly bad days.

I don’t have to do these things. I could probably survive without the knee braces or the medication. But I prefer to take advantage of the medical and professional resources around me to feel better. Walking is a lot more enjoyable if I’m not thinking about the pain in my joints.

The same rationale should apply to mental illness.

In recent years, the conversation to remove, outrun or man up against the stigma around mental health has grown. While a step in the right direction, this conversation usually stops after touching on the immediate terminology or the idea of creating positive spaces.

We need to destigmatize talking about mental illness, but the conversation can’t stop at awareness. It’s one thing to recognize you have anxiety, but it’s another to talk about cognitive therapy techniques or the benefits of Lexapro prescriptions.

So-called “mental health initiatives” rarely touch on direct solutions.  In a recent budget town hall, University of Calgary administration promised an ambiguous upcoming “mental health strategy.” The Students’ Union hosts an annual Stress Less Week featuring puppy rooms and bubble-wrap. And I’m still not entirely sure what UCalgary Strong is beyond a farmer’s market on Bermuda Shorts Day.

These initiatives are intentionally vague, dancing around actual solutions and realities of mental illness to focus on talking about it. Rarely do they translate into hiring more counsellors or reducing prescription fees for students. Instead, the focus is on bringing in motivational speakers, creatinawg a positive and fun atmosphere or promoting self-care.

While these initiatives are well-intentioned, they often have adverse effects on people actually struggling with the day-to-day aspects of mental illness. For a long time I was convinced that self-care and positive thinking were all I needed to get by. If I wrote in my journal, thought positive thoughts and took days off to look after myself, I would be able to deal with my chronic anxiety.

But that’s isn’t sustainable. It took months of chronic stress, multiple anxiety attacks and my best friend cornering me and forcefully telling me to get real help before I actually booked a counselling appointment.

Now, my counsellor and I work through strategies for dealing with anxiety attacks and preventing them as they start to happen. He helps me through techniques that deal with my specific chronic anxiety and discusses solutions for things in my life that trigger it.

If you’re in a major depressive episode, a cheerful voice telling you to love yourself won’t reset chemical imbalances in your brain. If you’re bipolar, a motivational speaker probably won’t be able to pull you out of a manic state.

There’s no shame in talking about mental illness, but there’s also no shame in asking for medical and professional help to make it better.

Walking uphill might be your school day, and your knee braces might be 500 milligrams of an anti-depressant, but the conversation surrounding both should be the same.

We should talk about mental illness — but we should also talk about how to live with it.


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