Today, January 31, 2018, is Bell Let’s Talk Day.
For those not familiar with this day, it’s an annual campaign to increase awareness about mental health, break down stigma and raise funds for mental health initiatives in Canada.
When it first launched in 2010, I was inspired by the brave souls who shared, in such a public way, their stories of living with mental illness, how they worked every day to fight their illness and the stigma surrounding it. I was blown away by how many people this national conversation reached and the funds ($86,504,429.05 so far) it’s generated for mental health initiatives.
Last year, I stopped watching from afar. Last year, on Bell Let’s Talk Day, I stepped up. I spoke up. I shared my struggle with depression.
Those closest to me already knew about it, but that day I shared it wider — posting it on Facebook, Twitter and a blog I resurrected that day. I was emboldened by the Let’s Talk initiative; I was scared too. I needn’t have been.
Putting myself out there was one of the best decisions of my life. The outpouring of support I received, the number of people who contacted me to say they also experienced mental health issues, the people who thanked me for sharing my story because it made them feel like they, too, could stop hiding, blew me away.
It hasn’t been all sunshine and roses though. A few people questioned the soundness of my decision to share my story, saying it would harm my career. To that I replied, that’s the old culture; we’re creating a new one.
Since this time last year, I received a new diagnosis, replacing depression with bipolar II (which includes periods of depression) and social anxiety disorder.
I’ve been open about that too. And let me tell you, it gets a different reaction from telling someone you have depression. Many people aren’t as familiar with bipolar II. And, unfortunately, too often what they have heard is misinformation, the stereotypes seen in too many tv shows, movies and books: Crazy. Off their meds. Unstable. So I’ve been working on that, speaking up and educating those around me about what it means to have bipolar II, and what it doesn’t.
I speak up because it helps educate people, dispel myths, create awareness and break down stigma.
I speak up because it takes people like me, like you, speaking up to change the culture around mental health, to move it out of the realm of taboo topics and into a space for open conversation.
I speak up because I want to pay it forward.
When I was diagnosed, first with depression and then bipolar II, it was the mental health bloggers, the authors writing their memoirs, the well-known personalities publicly sharing their mental health experiences that, in many ways, saved me.
Their words were like a life-preserver tossed to me while I thrashed about in raging waters. Their words brought me to a safe harbour. I wasn’t alone. Other people felt this way too.
And, when my illness took my ability to express my thoughts hostage, their words explained what it’s like to be depressed, hypomanic, under the grip of social anxiety, much better than I could at the time — so I shared their words with my family and friends. They were my translators, my interpreters.
Sometimes it takes a “credible”, recognizable figure — a celebrity, author, athlete, politician — speaking about their mental illness to help others accept it as a “real” illness. It shouldn’t be that way, but it often is. Thankfully, they stood up and every day more and more stand up to talk about mental health.
The culture around mental health stigma is shifting. I see it happening around me. But in order to keep moving forward, more of us — not just the celebrities and public figures — need to talk.
I keep a passage from a blog by Alistair McHarg on the wall above my desk at home. When I first read it, it helped me accept my diagnosis of bipolar II – something I’ll live with for the rest of my days. Every day since, it serves as a daily reminder of why standing in the shadows isn’t an option for me anymore, why I need to and will keep speaking up:
"Today I tell people I’m bipolar the same way I might tell them I’m right-handed, it’s a detail that helps them understand me but I am not defined by it. I have absolutely no shame about my history of mental illness and neither should you when it comes time to talking about your particular challenge.
They say that guilt is when you feel bad about something you did but shame is when you feel bad about something you are. You’re a teacher now; let them know just what you are – shamelessly."