To the professor at the University of Guelph,
I woke up this morning, jumped on Twitter, and immediately felt a pit in my stomach. There it was, a story by CTV News, “Students walk out after prof allegedly mocks classmate with anxiety.” “A Guelph University professor referred to a student’s aid worker as his ‘handler.'” You’re the professor. The professor that belittled a student with anxiety. A student who, despite his anxiety, still came to class. A student who came to class to learn, but was instead mocked, and no doubt humiliated in front of his peers. A student who was targeted by you – a man who was supposed to be there to teach, to educate, to instill knowledge. And to be honest, I feel really quite sick about it. Why? Because I was once that anxious student, except instead of sitting in your lecture hall, I was sitting in lecture halls at Western University. And I did so for five long, anxiety ridden years. You see, I too live with a mental illness. I too live with anxiety, and depression. And I too live in a world where the stigma surrounding mental health persists. And those of us living with or affected by mental illness live in this world, where we not only battle ourselves and our own minds, but we battle a society that sees our illness as invalid. Because you can’t physically see it, it must not be real right?
Imagine living with a brain that tries to convince you that you don’t belong in this world. Imagine living with a mind that you can’t trust. Imagine battling your own mind tirelessly day in and day out. Now, imagine doing all of this while living in a world where your mental illness is still seen as invalid. Imagine doing all of this in a society where physical illness is at the forefront of every charity event, walkathon, and fundraiser, but mental illness is something that we talk about once a year with corporate sponsorship on Bell Let’s Talk Day. Imagine not only being up against yourself, but up against a society that instead of seeking to understand your illness, seeks to cast judgment upon your illness.
People should not have to take their own lives in order for people to pay attention. My mental illness shouldn’t have to kill me before you take notice of it. Suicide rates shouldn’t have to rise in order for mental illness to be deemed valid. It’s valid. It’s real. In fact it’s so real that 1 in 4 people are living with it, living through it. Do you know more than 4 people? Guess what that means? It means that it’s very likely that someone you know is living with, struggling with, or in some way impacted by mental illness. It could be someone in your immediate family, a friend, a co-worker. It could be your child some day, your spouse some day – it could be you some day.
The thing amount mental illness is that it’s not choosy. It doesn’t care about your social status, your race, religion, sexuality, net worth, gender, or anything in between. It has a tendency to show up like a mother-in-law who has no concept of personal boundaries. It just swings your front door open like “Hey I’m here! Just wanted to check in!” And you’re like, “For Christ’s sake Brenda, I thought that we agreed that you would call before showing up here.” Much like Brenda, mental illness doesn’t call you before it arrives. It doesn’t even send a courtesy text. It just shows up. Depression just shows up. Anxiety just shows up. And eventually it overstays it’s welcome. It moves in with you. It commandeers your living space. It commandeers your mind. It’s always there. And over time you find yourself unable to remember what life looked like before your mental illness moved in with you.
My mental illness has given me a run for my money. It’s ruined a lot of great opportunities, relationships, and memories. It’s turned times in my life that should have been wonderful, into times of suffering, of defeat. It’s taken away a lot of happy days. It’s blocked out the sun, leaving me in the dark for days and months at a time. But in a strange sense I’m also grateful for it. Knowing such darkness has made the good days even better, and brighter. The intense lows have made the highs even higher. Living for years with the feeling that I had no purpose here on this earth, has oddly enough, given me a sense of purpose. It’s given me purpose to fight. To fight for those living with mental illness. It’s given me a reason to speak up. To speak up for those who are not yet ready or able to use their voice. It’s given me grief, but it’s also given me power.
I hope to one day live in world where mental illness is seen as being just as real, valid, and important as any physical illness is. I hope to live in a world where we see health as a full package – physical, mental, and emotional. I hope to live in a world where people with mental illness feel safe enough to speak up about their illness. Where they feel heard, and understood. Where they’re not deemed crazy or delusional for battling their own minds every day. Where they don’t have to battle alone, in secrecy and shame. I hope to live in a world where people like yourself no longer refer to mental health aids as “handlers.” My hope is that we can look back on this period of time, many years from now, and think, “We had it wrong, we had it all wrong. Thank God we’ve finally gotten it right.” And I believe that eventually we will get it right. Because of people like the courageous young woman who led the charge by walking out of your lecture hall that day. And because of the hundreds of students that followed her out. Unknowingly, they stood up not only for that one student, but for all of us that live with mental illness. Which gives me great hope, and hope is a powerful thing.