Most of us have heard of Bell Let’s Talk Day.  A day where Bell Media brings the discussion of mental health and illness to the forefront and gets people talking.  We are hearing more and more of people, especially young people, experiencing depression, anxiety, and other mental health related struggles.  You used to peg people as ‘weak’ or not ‘mentally tough’ but as society becomes more educated, we are beginning to realize that there is a whole lot more going on than an easy categorization into such a simple term.

If you know me personally or have followed my blog for a while, you will know that I have experienced an extreme case of anxiety in my past.  If you want to read more into that specifically, feel free to click here. No one ever believed me when I told them.   I think that is just it.  You are taught to not judge a book by it’s cover when getting to know people, so why should we assume anything different with mental health and illness?  It does not matter your life experience, age, sex, gender, or work experience.  Mental health can affect multiple people in so many different ways.  People couldn’t understand how I could stand in front of a crowd to teach group fitness yet experience anxiety in other aspects of my life.

As a fitness leader, or anyone in an influential position, you become afraid to be seen as not strong, stable, or perfect.  However, as more people begin to talk about mental health, you realize lots of people, regardless of being a leader or not, are in fact struggling.  I know many people personally who are also going through things.  So, I wanted to take the time to showcase the story of one of my dearest friends so that anyone needing support knows that you are not alone.

Can you provide me with a brief background on who you are and what you do?

My name is Danielle; I’m a 24-year old working girl who just landed her first “big girl” job, a healthcare professional, and lover of sport and physical activity. After graduating from the Kinesiology program at the University of Toronto I completed a post-grad certificate in Exercise Science and Lifestyle Management at Humber College. From here I spent 8 months working at Canada Basketball in the Women’s High Performance program and now am working full time at the Coaches Association of Ontario. When I’m not buried nose-deep in a great book or sweating it out at the gym, you'll find me working on my girl hustle project, Fully Fearless - which was founded with Rachel and our other badass gal pal Brittney Turner. I am a traveller, hiker, coffee drinker, and lover of putting smiles on other people’s faces.

What has been your unique experience with mental health?

From the short bio I just gave you, I’m sure you would never guess I have struggled with mental illness. It all started in high school - after transferring to a new school after grade 10 I just wasn't feeling myself. I started disconnecting with friends, keeping more to myself, and growing extremely overwhelmed at the thought of just getting up for school, let alone concentrating in class. I reached a really low point in my life about halfway through grade 11, not seeing the value in my life and contemplated hurting myself. I was lucky - I had friends that cared about me more than I cared about myself who helped pull me out of that dark place. Still, I never sought out professional help. Things were fine throughout the beginning of university; I moved out for a year, made new friends, learned a lot; and then the wave of darkness came again. This time it was about social situations- parties, going to class, riding the subway. Small things that I once did with ease seemed too overbearing to even contemplate. I reached a point where I could no longer ride the subway because of all the people, and I couldn't write a test without hyperventilating in my seat. It was then that I reached out to the Counselling and Psychological Services at the University of Toronto, and then that I was diagnosed with panic disorder and minor depression- recurrent unexpected panic attacks followed by worries and anxiety about future attacks. I started meeting with a counsellor to learn more about my disorder and how to cope, I started taking anxiety medication (which I am slowing working to wean off), and I started to see that I needed to take care of my mind the same way I took care of my body.

Since then I have worked hard to care for myself. I take my medication every day, I try different relaxation strategies and I remind myself daily that I am not a crazy person and that I AM strong enough to face the day. It’s been a long road, but I am definitely a different person for working through and living with this disorder.

With that said, what significance does Bell Let’s Talk Day have on your life personally? How do you think this day can impact society as a whole?

For me, Bell Let’s Talk Day is a way for more people to learn that mental illness happens a lot more frequently than we think. 1 in 5 people are affected by mental illness in Canada. Think about that. Think about how many people you know, and then think that 1 in ever 5 of them deals with, or has been affected by mental illness. Bell Let’s Talk Day is a single day in the year where we make a significant effort to be more open about these issues and actively try to reduce the stigma that comes with them. People with mental illness aren't crazy. They aren't weirdos, and they aren't dangerous (most of the time). They have an injury, it’s just not one you can see. So why should they be blamed or scrutinized for that? My hope is that one day Let’s Talk Day will be more than just one day- it will be the way our society sees mental illness on a day to day basis.

What strategies and tips do you use to help you in your daily life?  What insight can you provide for others who might be going through similar experiences to try to ease their symptoms?

For me, medication helped significantly. That doesn't always work for people. It definitely took some time for me to be okay with the thought of swallowing a pill every day to feel normal. But I didn't use it as my only solution. I’ve used exercise as a significant treatment; gym time is a specified time frame for me, myself, and I. Swimming, lifting weights, hiking, getting into nature- all of these are forms of therapy for me. Learning how to breathe properly helped me a lot too, I use a technique my therapist taught me. I place one hand on my belly and the other on my chest. When I breathe in I focus on expanding my belly first, then rib cage, then chest. When I exhale I focus on the opposite- deflating from the chest, rib cage, then belly. A trick that seems easy,but takes a ton of practice, especially on the hard days.

How important has it been in your life to have the support of friends and family? Do you find people are quite supportive and empathetic about your needs and experiences?

Before I could be open about my mental health with anyone I needed to be open about it with myself. I think my degree helped a lot with this. I was able to understand the science and physiology of what was happening in my brain, why I was feeling the way I was. I never wanted to tell my parents about my struggle. I didn't want them to judge me, or to feel like they had done something wrong. To be honest I don't think I’ve ever really had an open conversation with them about my disorder. I think they knew I was going through a hard time, but they also knew that I would tell them about it when I was ready. And I will, when I am. Now that I have coping strategies and a healthy handle on my triggers, I’m a lot more open about what I went through and how I continue to fight my battle. The friends I’ve made have always been supportive, there to listen when I need to talk, and to remind me what I need to to when I’m having a hard time. Meeting others who have dealt with mental health issues has helped a lot too. It makes things real, reminds me that I’m not the only one out there who deals with this kind of stuff.

What do you hope can be accomplished for all of those experiencing mental health challenges? How do you see society shifting to better understand and become more open to bringing these types of discussions to the table?

I hope that one day people who have mental health issues aren't treated any different than someone with a physical injury. Like I said, 90% of people that know me would never know I have an anxiety disorder. I also hope that one day, sooner rather than later, that the stigma surrounding mental illness is lessened. People have so many misconceptions about those who live with these types of illness. I think Bell is doing a great thing by trying to raise awareness and fight stigma, but I think we need to realize that society doesn't change overnight. We need to constantly work each and every day to learn more about these illnesses and how they affect people. We need to practice compassion, kindness and being non-judgemental. For those suffering I want them to know that there is hope out there. No matter how awful you feel there is someone who feels a similar pain; there is someone out there who will listen, someone who wants to help you. I want people to feel comfortable asking for help, to feel okay admitting that they are struggling. I want those people to know that they are loved.

I am so proud of Danielle for feeling comfortable to share her own story.  When we are able to talk, chances are someone else will also feel inspired to do the same.  My goal in today’s special post is to remind anyone reading that you are not alone.  Whether you feel comfortable to reach out to me, your friends, your family, or professional resources, know that someone is always there to listen and provide support.  Mental health doesn’t just affect 1 in 5, it affects everyone.  The other 4 of 5 are the friends or family members of the 1, learning how to best navigate a positive relationship with a loved one experiencing a challenge or struggle.  If this day accomplishes nothing else, I hope that as a community and greater society we can show solidarity, develop more compassion, empathy, and a deeper understanding and kindness for others. #BellLetsTalk

Be fierce.  Be strong.  Be vibrant.


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