#BellLetsTalk: My Journey with Mental Health

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Mental health and the need to cultivate and look after our mental health is a growing topic of discussion.

The Voss Sisters
The Voss Sisters

Mental illness affects all Canadians at some point in their lives, whether it’s you, a family member or a friend. 20% of Canadians will personally experience mental illness in their lifetime but only 49% of those who have suffered from depression or anxiety have sought help from a medical professional.

Over the last 18 months I have had my own journey to better mental health. I have always been a generally happy person. Growing up my sister and I were the “Voss Sisters” that could tackle anything. We were on all the sports teams, in all the clubs, a member of all the bands, on the honour roll… we were pretty much known for handling everything well and coming out on top. For me, that continued through most of University. There were always challenges but I always felt like I could set my plan, create the to do list, and tick things off until everything was back under control. Then one day I didn’t feel like I could do that anymore.

After graduating I had a very clear path of what I wanted to do over the next couple years, complete my Certified Exercise Physiologist exams, get some more experience, apply to grad school, and then get launched in my career. While I was doing this a lot in my personal and professional lives was changing. In one month, I finished my certification exams, all my closest friends set off on their grad school adventures, and things started to take a negative turn at work. I’ll be the first to admit I was not coping well. I have always been busy and suddenly, I didn’t have to study (what was I to do with an extra 20 hours a week?), most of my core social network was no longer in the city, and there were increasing demands on me at work and I felt like I wasn’t doing anything right.

I never really thought I was a crier until this particular month, but it seemed like once I started I couldn’t stop. I stopped wearing make up because my mascara was usually at my chin by lunch and I spent all day at home on the weekends in my pjs on the couch. I’m pretty addicted to my step count and crushing my daily step goal (12500) and I had so little motivation to do anything I didn’t even hit 1000 steps over the weekend. I felt like every in my life was water and where I could normally grab onto a task and get’er done, this time it felt like it was just slipping through my fingers.

I had just seen my grandma go through a bout of clinical depression and I knew how debilitating it could be so I decided to try and get help while it wasn’t too severe. I contacted the Calgary Counselling Centre and was in to see someone within the week. At the time, I didn’t even know what I was looking for or what I needed to work on. I just sat there and poured out everything that had been happening over the last 6 weeks (with more crying) while my counselor took lots and lots of notes. From there we started trying to pull it apart and figure out what I needed help with and to work on. Most of it I think I already knew but having an unbiased sounding board was incredibly helpful. She was able to ask me questions or phrase things in a different way to change my perspective of my situation. I am a little bit of a perfectionist and a control freak and even though on the sports field I can focus on controlling what I can control (myself) and let everything else go, it doesn’t work so well in the other areas of my life.

One of the things I have been working on is being assertive with my needs and not avoiding confrontation. At the time my boyfriend and I were long distance and let’s just say it wasn’t going particularly well. A big step was for me to bring up what was bothering me and my concerns, which promptly led to the end of our relationship. Although that was probably the worst possible outcome, I was still proud of myself for doing it and tried to pick up the pieces. I was turned onto the work of Dr. Kristin Neff and Dr. Brene Brown by a colleague and I can honestly say it changed my life. It gave me a much better understanding of myself and complemented the work I was doing with my counselor quite well.

In May, my counselor suggested I try group counselling to round out what we had been talking about one on one. It was a more structured 12-week self-esteem program with weekly homework, handouts, etc. I am a firm believer that exchanging ideas and experiences with others helps with learning so I agreed. I felt a bit of trepidation as I started the classes, I wasn’t totally sure what to expect. We started talking about the benefits of exercise so I felt right at home and I left wondering if I was actually going to get anything out of the session. As the weeks progressed we started to get a bit deeper into the issues of self-esteem and ways to build it, I started to feel like I was being put into that athlete stereotype that is so pervasive in society. It kind of felt like that’s all I was viewed as but I wanted to be more than “a kid who can lift good and want to learn to do other stuff good too” (as Zoolander would say).

The last day of the group session happened to be on birthday so we had a little pizza party and wrap up, to my surprise, they presented me with a birthday card. One of the ladies said that she wanted to thank me for being so open and honest with the group as it had helped her break down the athlete stereotype and realize they didn’t necessarily have the perfect life with the perfect wardrobe, car, etc. It made me realize that perhaps they hadn’t even realized they were putting me into a bit of a box and that by just being myself and being real I could help change other people’s lives in a small way.

The last 18 months have not necessarily been the smoothest but I can say that going to counselling was one of the best decisions of my life. My boyfriend and I reconciled over the past summer and I could immediately tell how much benefit I had received from counselling. I felt stronger and more independent in my relationship even though I was in another huge period of transition and relied on him for a lot of support. We have since ended things but I responded to that situation differently. I did not feel like I had done something wrong or that I was lacking in some way like before. I was able to accept it, gain some closure, and move on.  I feel more balanced in stressful situations and also  able to take on challenges with a new confidence I did not have before. I have reached the maintenance stage of my counselling but I think I will continue to go for the rest of life just to make sure the tools I have learned stay fresh and readily available for when I need them.

Additional Resources

There a number of great resources out there. These resources are mostly Calgary-based, if you know of any great resources we have missed, please contact us. If you are a post-secondary student, most universities have on-campus counselling and may have a program for discounted or free counselling.

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