Overcoming the Stigma

U of T Health and Wellness has named October as Mental Health Awareness month, in hopes of raising awareness of those often suffering in silence due to stigma and misunderstanding of mental impairments and disease.  A recent study by the U of T Health and Wellness Office says that up to 60 percent of university students have at one point felt hopeless, up to 43 percent have said they felt so depressed they could not function, and 9 percent have contemplated suicide. To help shed some light on this subject, I sat down with a 32-year-old third-year student to have a frank discussion about his suffering with bipolar disorder. The student agreed to this on the condition of anonymity. Q. When were you first diagnosed as having bipolar disorder? A.  After suffering from what my family doctor thought was depression since I was 14, at age 16 she sent me to see a specialist at the Hospital for Sick Children. It was then that I was diagnosed. Q. What are the symptoms of bipolar disorder? A. For me, I would have periods where I thought the world was against me and I would sink into a huge depression. I wouldn’t want to go to school, didn’t want to participate in any activities with friends, and really just wanted to lie in bed and cry all the time. On the flip side, I would get these manic phases where I was full of energy and life, and often did things that I normally wouldn’t do. I would sleep only about four hours a night and was a real social butterfly. It was tricky with these phases, because to everyone I was just a happy kid, but in reality I was ill. Q. What was it like adapting to having bipolar disorder as a teenager? A. It was quite difficult. I couldn’t talk to my friends about it because I didn’t want anyone to know that there was something wrong with me. My doctors had put me on medication to control the cycles of depression and mania and I had a psychiatrist to talk to on a weekly basis. After a short time, however, I got tired of taking pills and going to talk to some 50-year-old man who didn’t appear to understand what I was going through. The problems didn’t go away, though, and I started self-medicating with drugs and alcohol to cope with my mental issues. It led me down a dark path that while I understand it, I wish it had never happened. Q. What changed in your life to have you decide to get help again? A. Well, when I turned 25 I realized that I had a major drug and alcohol problem, I wasn’t having any meaningful relationships and I was not happy with the life I was living. I told my new family doctor about the problems I was having and he referred me to a clinic at Mount Sinai Hospital. My new psychiatrist was young and seemed to really care about my situation and I was able to open up to him. He put me on a regiment of drugs to control the chemical imbalances in my brain, and the medications started to work. I started weaning myself off the illegal drugs as I started to regain control in my life. Since then, I have not looked back. A year after I started the new medications I enrolled at the U of T and began to really get focus on what I want to do with my life.
Lithium is the common drug used to treat bipolar disorder
Lithium is the common drug used to treat bipolar disorder
Q. Do you have any advice for people who may also be suffering with a mental disease, or for people who may know someone with one? A. Well, the best thing for someone who is noticing issues with their mood is to seek professional help. It is so much easier to battle a mental illness when you have someone to talk to. Mental illness is not the end of the world; some of us just need a little bit of help to manage our moods. If you know someone that has been diagnosed, the best thing you can do is to listen to them and understand. Too many people keep their problems bottled up out of fear of what others will think. If you can lend your ear to that person, they may have a glimmer of hope in a life that may be dominated by fear. Not understanding something and an unwillingness to learn leads to this stigma. Throughout the month Health and Wellness want to reduce the stigma attached to mental health issues, and started with a human ribbon on King's College Circle.
Ribbon to Reduce Stigma, October 4 2011 - King's College Circle
Ribbon to Reduce Stigma, October 4 2011 - King's College Circle
For the rest of the month they are promoting their "Take 5" initiative, which includes a series of lectures and workshops designed to aid in reducing the stigma and better understanding of your own mental situation. For more information about Health and Wellness and Mental Health Awareness Month, visit their website.
Celebrities with bipolar disorder
Celebrity Robert Pattinson is just one of many in the world that suffer from bipolar disorder
  Do you know someone with bipolar disorder or a different mental health issue? Share your stories in the comment section! -Jon

8 comments on “Overcoming the Stigma

  1. Thanks for this. The stigma on mental health issues is all around us, but so are people who struggle with mental health issues. I’m so glad that the conversation on this stigma has started.

  2. That’s the thing with mental health issues. No one wants to talk about it. It is so very common.. in my research I came across a statistic that 1 in 5 Canadians experience mental health issues and it jumps to 1 in 4 Canadian university students.
    People are ashamed because of this stigma; can you imagine if there was a stigma around diabetes or cancer? It seems silly, but stigma about mental disorder is silly too.

  3. Thanks for posting this. I have a friend who has Bipolar 1 and there was many up and downs before the diagnosis. There have been many times when I’ve been frustrated and wanted to blame the person, but then I realized I wouldn’t do the same if a person was in a wheelchair. Because mental health issues aren’t “visible”, it was easy for me to blame and label that person as being a “drama queen”, “self-indulgent” or “lazy”. It was only after becoming truly educated about mental health issues that my biases began to decrease.

    It’s great that you’re opening a dialogue to promote awareness.

  4. My understanding is that most people that are bipolar go through years not knowing the true cause of their illness, and are so often just labelled as depressed. I know what you mean though about being quick to label someone as a “drama queen,” ” self-indulgent” or “lazy.” Lack of understanding leads to these presumptions.

  5. I had bipolar 1 going through all of school, often without professional help, and it was a nightmare. I’m very happy to hear that, overall, things have worked out well for this student.

    I’m also happy to hear that the University of Toronto is getting involved in raising awareness of mental illnesses. University, with its cut-throat competition, is one of the hardest places to talk openly about one’s mental illness.

  6. As a fellow student in the faculty suffering from mental illness (OCD primarily and related spectrum disorders), I appreciate the Faculty’s participation in Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s also wonderful the student above was courageous enough to share his story. I too have suffered from childhood, however I was not officially diagnosed until 2000, when I was originally in 3rd year at the university. After dropping out and several attempts to find a good fit in terms of therapist and medication (it can take a while to find the “right” combination b/c everyone’s body chemistry is different), I’m finally back in school.

    Accessibility Services is a great resource for help and would fully recommend then to any students who have been diagnosed with similar conditions.

  7. I’m so glad you’re discussing this! I’m a student currently in the throws of depression and anxiety disorder. It’s been hard to talk about it or to get help, but getting support is so much better than suffering alone. I haven’t had much luck with Accessibility Services, but CAPS is a great resource and professors are often very understanding.

  8. Sal,

    I have a friend who just started going to counselling sessions with CAPS, and so far it is going good. Not only do they talk about the problems you are facing, but also try to help you out so that it does not hamper your educational experience.

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