Monday, 22 July 2013

"Penny for Your Thoughts"

Stigma quote by Marian Anderson - Prejudice is like a hair across your cheek. You can't see it, you can't find it with your fingers, but you keep brushing at it because the feel of it is irritating.
What exactly is stigma? Is it prejudice? They are connected, intertwined, that is for certain. Especially on the subject of mental illness. Sometimes it's subtle and sometimes it's not.
Ever since I began speaking years ago about my own battles with depression, and now with this blog, I hear from people, strangers, colleagues, and friends, on a daily basis who are waging their own wars. Their personal stories, words of support for my own health, and encouragement for the work that I do to raise awareness on this topic are all so inspiring and rewarding to me. Whenever someone shares a piece of themselves with me, I become a bit stronger. I feel less alone on those particularly dark days and I learn about how others cope. Adding a few tips and tricks to my mental health tool kit is always good!
There are many of us out there - one in five Canadians have been diagnosed or will be diagnosed with mental illness in their lifetime.  But most of us still aren't talking about it openly. It's still somewhat shameful. As I have said many times before, unless more of us come out of the mental illness closet we will never truly come out from under the shroud of stigma and the discrimination that goes along with it. So, I thought I would poll my amazing support group, my Partners for Mental Health community correspondents family, on what they feel are the biggest misconceptions about mental illness. Here's our list:
1. People only suffer mental illness as a result of trauma: Yes, mental illness is often a result of some sort of trauma such as job loss, illness, or death of a loved one. But there are also other causes. We have heard in the last couple of years about sports injuries and brain illness, for example. And we know that bio-chemical imbalances in the brain as well as a genetic disposition all play a role in whether or not you will be among the one in five.
2. Medicine fixes everything: There's a lack of understanding about what hard work recovery is and all the elements involved in it (medication, cognitive behavioural therapy, nutrition and exercise, social connection). Additionally, there are many kinds of meds and not all of them are effective for everyone. I have been lucky and have only had to tweak my medications once but I know people who struggle to hold onto hope as they try one medication after another until they find the right one (or combination of meds).
3. Mental illness is just an excuse for bad behaviour: According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada 46% of Canadians believe this to be true. What is perceived as bad behaviour are actually symptoms of illness: irritability, anger, crying, etc. It's worth noting that men and women often display different symptoms. For example, men typically show anger when they are depressed.
4. You can just "snap out of it": Mental illness is not the flu, it won't pass in five days. It takes time, whether that be a couple of months, or a couple of years. See point four below...
5. When you feel better then you are all better: Recovery from mental illness is full of ups and downs. You may feel better for a few days but that doesn't always mean that you are recovered and that your illness is in remission.  I like to compare recovery to climbing Mt. Everest - you don't get to the top in one day and sometimes you need to climb back down to base camp to acclimate. You need to persevere and not give up.

That's what we are up against. It's frustrating but I also understand that unless we talk about it, nothing will change. That's why some of us want to talk about it - to help people understand. But it's not all doom and gloom! While I was at it I thought I would gather my colleagues' top tips to help you or a loved one through mental illness:
1. You are in control of your own recovery: Don't just do what your doctor says if it doesn't feel right. There are many elements involved in treatment and recovery and you need to find the right combination for yourself.  Seek professional medical advice and help, weigh your options, and do what feels best for you.
2. Find your caregiver dream team: Finding the right match of therapist or doctor can sometimes be challenging. If you don't feel comfortable with that person, or if he or she treats you with less than empathy and respect, you need to move on to the next health care professional. If you have a bad experience with one or two, just don't give up - keep searching for the right help.
3. Find others who have been through a similar situation for support/guidance: Being able to relate to someone and have someone relate to you is really important. My PFMH family is that group of people for me.
4. Find people who are supportive of you: This is really important and kind of tricky sometimes. Surround yourself with only supportive, positive people. Distance yourself from people who negatively affect your self-esteem and recovery.
5. Know you're NEVER alone: You are not the only one going through this and sometimes there is a tiny bit of comfort in knowing that. Refer to points three and four above!                    
My favourite piece of advice? It comes from Ashley: "Have a little hope."
KB xo
For more information about mental health issues please visit the Canadian Mental Health Association's website. They have some fabulous resources to help you on your journey.
P.S. Thank you to Kathleen, Ashley, Charlotte, Casey, Meaghan, Meg, Allison - you guys ROCK!

Sunday, 14 July 2013

"Invincible Summer"

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”
~ Albert Camus
Do you ever have that feeling that the universe is working against you? Maybe you woke up late, missed your bus, and when you got to work you realized that you left your lunch on the counter back at home. Don't you just hate those days?

Now imagine that you are fighting a debilitating illness. Depression alone is not so great on the best of days - feelings of isolation, despair, hopelessness, and sadness. Add to that some 'fun' factors such as fatigue, weight gain, and financial strain. It can make you feel like you are fighting a losing battle.

I seem to be making the slow journey back out of depression, for which I am overjoyed. At least, I would be overjoyed if I had the energy. Just when I thought my battle was almost over, a few new ones came along. Challenge number one? Overwhelming fatigue.

Yes, fatigue is a common symptom of depression. But this time for me it has been more than that - bigger, stronger, all-encompassing. So back to my doctor for consultation and a round of tests. I was tested for possible thyroid problems, iron levels, and diabetes. All clear (phew!).

Then it was off to a sleep specialist for more testing. This time, the tests told another story: sleep apnea (a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts). My sleep tests showed that I was waking up (without realizing it) an average of 14 times per hour. No wonder I am exhausted all the time. The great news, however, is that I now know what I am dealing with. I am receiving treatment and, with any luck, I'll be feeling the positive effects in a few weeks and I won't feel like I have the energy levels of a turtle any longer (no offence to turtles).

The next challenge? Weight gain. Yes, another awesome (!) side effect of most anti-depressant medications is weight gain. Funny how the drug companies don't exactly advertise that. If that weren't enough, many of us who are depressed often eat to self-soothe. At a time when you aren't feeling so great about life and yourself, throw on a few extra pounds and see how you feel then - not so great. Now factor in the fatigue that keeps you in bed or on the couch when you know you should be exercising.

Too tired to exercise because of the depression, eating to self-soothe, gaining weight from the meds, tired because of the extra weight you are now carrying, you know you should exercise because of the physical and mental health benefits and yet you are just...too...tired. It feels like you are running in circles (or, again, it would if you had the energy).

And the final challenge? Financial. This is a tough one, a topic that could probably use it's own post. If you are lucky enough to work for a great company (like I do) that has a generous benefits program (like mine does), then the financial impact is reduced. Employees on short term disability leave at my company still earn a paycheque, just one that is smaller. We also have access to an employee assistance program with counsellors as well as financial assistance for psychologists and psychiatrists, and coverage for the required medications. Not everyone is so lucky.

Yes, I am one of the lucky ones because, although my money is tight these days, I am not in a dire situation. For others who don't have such generous benefits plans, the added stress of financial concerns can make recovering from depression or anxiety that much more challenging.

So how to approach these challenges? I will take the same approach that I have taken in the past with my depression - by treating myself with respect and care. I'll take each day as it comes and set small goals for myself. I have faced and overcome challenges bigger than a few extra pounds, some fatigue, and moths in my wallet (!) so I'll overcome these latest additions.

Is the universe against me? Nah. In fact, I think it's actually on my side, teaching me things, making me stronger. The most important thing that I have learned along my journey? Within me is an invincible summer.

KB xo

Monday, 1 July 2013

"Accept Nothing Less"

We wish nothing more, but we will accept nothing less. Masters in our own house we must be, but our house is the whole of Canada.
Pierre Trudeau

Today is Canada Day and I am a staunchly proud Canadian. As I watch the reports on television of the uprisings and political unrest in Egypt, Syria, and Turkey or the stories about the abuse of women in India or even the fight (again!) for women's reproductive rights in the United States, I am so grateful. I am grateful that I had the sheer good fortune of being born in a democratic, somewhat socialist leaning nation, such as Canada.

I can go through a long list of things that I love about my country (butter tarts, the Canadian Rockies, Mr. Dressup) or why I am proud of it (Rick Hansen, women's rights, multi-culturalism) but I will narrow it down to two things that I read about this past week that pertain to mental health issues in Canada and the elimination of stigma.

First of all, there was the tragedy & devastation of the recent flooding in Alberta. I, like all Canadians, was fascinated by the sheer force of nature and the impact that it was capable off. The town of High River is still mostly under water and it will take years for the province to recover from this natural disaster.

But as the days wore on we were able to see past the physical impact on homes and communities to the emotional impact. Lives will never be the same. So how does that affect a person's mental health? Well, it cannot be underestimated. People need help and support for the emotional part as much as they do to repair their homes. News reports stated that use of help lines was up considerably in the days following the flooding. I am so happy to know that people were/are reaching out for help.

And I guess that Alberta Premier, Alison Redford, knew that looking after her people's mental health was just as important an element in rebuilding communities as the 'boots on the ground' are because on June 28th she announced the appointment of a new provincial Chief Mental Health Officer, Dr. Michael Trew. Redford's statement said that it was "to help victims of the recent flooding cope with the emotional and psychological consequences of this disaster." Good for you, Redford, and good for Albertans.

The second thing that happened was the announcement that work is under way on a Canadian guide to mental health reporting. Hooray! Is this really very important, you may ask. Quite simply, it's hugely important. The media often will unintentionally reinforce misconceptions associated with mental health issues. Instead of informing, they sometimes perpetuate stigma and myth. In their press release, the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma explain it like this:

"There's been some excellent, groundbreaking work on this in the media across the country in the last few years. But there are also cases where coverage, in the context of breaking news, reinforces damaging myths. Often this happens when general news reporters have to cover dramatic incidents involving mental health issues without warning. We want to help them - and others just entering the business - avoid pitfalls, add vital perspective and reduce collateral damage."

Why is this? Because they don't understand. Which is exactly why we need discussion and education about mental health issues, and certainly amongst those we trust in presenting facts and news. Yay, Canada!

As I write this I am feeling pretty good about Canada, this country that I love and am so very happy to claim as my own. We Canadians aren't perfect but we keep quietly working, striving towards something better, together, and that is something to be very proud of. Healthy people build healthy communities.

KB xo

P.S. this is dedicated to my Partners for Mental Health family spread all across this awesome country!

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