Today is Bell’s Let’s Talk day; a day to spread awareness and information on mental health issues, and to try to end the stigma surrounding mental health. Sadly, 1 in 5 Canadians will suffer mental issues and many don’t seek or receive help for various reasons. Ease of access, medical followup and support, and cost are often factors (we so often hear the alarming statistics of homelessness among people with mental illness) but so is the stigma surrounding mental health concerns – we don’t seek help or talk with family and friends because we feel we ought to be able to “cope” or “deal with it” or that people won’t understand and will judge us. It’s an internal and external issue, and Bell’s plan is to raise money for mental health initiatives, as well as start conversations that hopefully will continue beyond today. See more at their website.
In the last year-and-a-half to two years, I have been dealing with anxiety and stress. With hindsight I am able to pinpoint it to a particularly stressful semester of work with some very challenging classes. I remember nights sobbing on the phone to my boyfriend at the time, unsure how to deal with my situation and stubbornly unwilling to ask for help – new teachers often hold the belief that we cannot ask for help from administrators because it would show we are weak and unable to handle a challenging class, which could jeopardize our chances at a position at that school another year. Whether that is a real or perceived concern I’m not sure, but I know I am not the only person to have felt that pressure to perform on my own. As so often happens, my problems snowballed – tough semester, bad break up, an unusually slow year for work (and therefore financial strain), and then the teacher strike. I started to feel overwhelmed at the slightest change to my routine or added responsibility; I would worry ceaselessly about my future, especially comparing myself to others; my brain would obsess about minutiae, or, even worse, replay stupid or slightly embarrassing things I’d said and done at any point in my life; and I started to feel anxious about tasks I wouldn’t have in the past. I recognized that something was wrong with my levels of stress and anxiety, but despite my mother’s increasingly frequent suggestions that I talk to someone, I insisted I just needed time to relax and refocus. It was in this state of mind that I went to the BCTF Summer Conference in August 2014.
In the spring of 2014 I took on the roll of local contact for Teachers Teaching on Call in our union local. (Because, as I joked at the time, I totally need MORE responsibility and stuff added to my plate). This meant I was able to attend summer conference. I was excited, which seems weird considering how even when I was “normal” I didn’t like uncertain situations, being alone with people I didn’t know, and just generally putting myself out there. I had a moment on the first day that stuck out in my mind because it was so irrational. I was alone in the elevator coming down for my first morning session and the whole ride down I kept picturing myself leaving the elevator for the lobby and facing a crowd of people who of course would notice how conspicuously awkward and alone I was, and probably start talking about me. It seems silly, but the dread and fear I felt were very real. It didn’t bode well for the four days ahead. Fortunately, at my TTOC Contact sessions, I made a friend, which helped alleviate some pressure. One of our sessions was geared towards stress, anxiety, and depression among teachers, especially TTOCs. Dr. Andrew Miki showed us a powerpoint about how life can get us into situations of unhealthy levels of stress etc. and how we can work on changing our behaviour to help reverse and even prevent getting into a bad situation. He works with the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy model, and had noticed a large number of teachers among his patients. He has been working with the BCTF to create a website with modules to teach teachers the CBT methods in an attempt to reach a broader number of people suffering with abnormal levels of stress and anxiety, especially since there are often roadblocks to accessing care. It was a revelation for me. I saw myself in his examples, I saw how my last few years had brought me to this place and how I wasn’t just in a slump, that I didn’t have to just “deal with it.” For any of my teacher friends reading this, the (totally free) website and modules are available here and all you need is your BCTF ID to sign up. I started to reflect on why I had decided not to seek help before, even though I’d been urged to do so, and the reason was somewhat surprising.
I felt like a poser.
Weird, right? But I know so many people who have been impacted by severe mental illness – anxiety disorders, chronic depression, bi-polar disorder, self harm, suicide – that I felt my situation just wasn’t that bad and it would be kind of pathetic to start whinging about it when others had it so much worse. Part of it, I’m sure, was my stress and anxiety telling me I wasn’t worthy or deserving of help because I’m just not that important. And part of it was not wanting to admit that I was “weak” enough to succumb to the levels of anxiety that I had. I didn’t consider my situation to be a “legitimate” problem, and in judging myself I started the cycle of thought that lead me to believe I would be judged by others. Without trying to sound like a cliché, I had to admit to myself that I needed to make a change of some kind before I was able to open up and take steps toward fixing the problem. And where am I now? Well, I’d like to say I’m totally fine, but I’m not – sorry if you were expecting a picture perfect inspirational ending here. I know I don’t work on my modules often enough, I’m not pushing myself enough (or NOT pushing myself when I need to not be pushed), but I am getting better. I’ve had some bumps and some things have set me back a bit, but I do see improvement. I’ve been able to talk to a few close friends, open up a little and share, and while I still have that niggling feeling that my problems aren’t important enough, I can recognize that feeling that way is precisely why I need to keep talking. Mental health issues aren’t prepackaged. Just with everything else in life – and especially in health – it is an individual problem that impacts people to varying degrees and severity, and in different ways. No one of us is more or less important, nor are our problems more or less legitimate than anyone else. We all need and deserve to live happy and healthy lives, both physically and mentally.
So after today, let’s keep talking.
Please let me know if there are any I should add.