Why We MUST Talk About Mental Health #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth

And just like that, May is ending and so is mental health awareness month! I’ve had a blast writing these posts for the month on a topic I’m extremely passionate about. I’m so glad you all could join me on this journey of mental health and wellness.

For this last post, I wanted to write a short and sweet post to emphasize why its important that we talk about mental health. Not just for mental health awareness month, but every month, every week, and every day of the year.

1) 1 in 5 children/youth will experience a mental health challenge.

If you were to line up 5 kids at random from Ontario, approximately one of them will have experienced a mental health challenge in their life, which typically expresses itself during adolescence. That’s 20% of children! Mental health doesn’t just involve being “depressed” or “anxious” or “bipolar” etc. A mental health challenge can simply being so overwhelmed with school work, it’s hard to function. In Ontario, it can take up to 18 months for children to see a mental health specialist. The government needs to know that mental health is important to their constituents, and that means advocating, and advocating loud.

2) 30% of Ontario residents over the age of 65 have mental health issues.

It’s not just Canada’s children that suffer when we stay quiet about mental health. The seniors of Ontario also face mental health challenges. According to CHMA Ontario, “changes [particularly for seniors] such as loss of loved ones, retirement, and decreasing social support networks can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety in later life.”

3) Approximately 49% of people who feel they have experienced depression and/or anxiety have never gone to see a doctor for help.

Shocking, isn’t it? About half of Canadians never go to their doctor with mental health concerns. There are many reasons for this, but there is one big issue: stigma. When I first experienced mental health issues, I didn’t want to tell anyone because I was scared and embarrassed. When I was in public school, our health class covered healthy eating, consistent exercising, puberty, etc. yet why had I never heard anything about taking care of my mental health?

People have so many preconceived notions of what it means to be “mentally ill”, but the reality is, we all have mental health even if we don’t necessarily have a mental illness. We’re only human. There are going to be times when we’re not okay, and it’s okay to admit to ourselves and to others that we aren’t okay.

Everyone needs to take care of their own mental health. Just because we aren’t suffering from an illness, doesn’t mean we need to just throw health out the window. We try to stay physically healthy even when we aren’t sick, so why should our mental wellness be any different?

When we come together and take care of our mental wellbeing, and talk about it with each other we can make a big difference. It’s time to talk about mental health with each other so we can begin breaking down the stigma. If you’re having a hard time mentally, you don’t have to keep it to yourself. No one will think any less of you. Everyone has had a hard time at some point in their lives, and you will find someone who can support you. You are not all alone. I promise.

– Carole

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Medication 101: Taking Medication to Treat Mental Illness #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth

We’re almost at the home stretch! It’s crazy how quickly May has passed by! My apologies for not getting this post up yesterday, time got away from me.

This week I want to talk about taking medication to treat mental illnesses, specifically using anti-depressants to treat anxiety and depression. Growing up, I had a lot of misconceptions about taking medication that stopped me from pursuing it as part of my treatment plan. This week, I’m going to answer some commonly asked questions I get about taking medication to provide some information about what it means to take anti-depressants. I haven’t tried any other forms of medication, so I can only speak to the use of SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors).

How does your medication work? Will you be on it forever?

One of my biggest fears of taking medication to help manage my anxiety and depression was the fear that I would never be able to get off them. What if I needed them to function and I was stuck on them for the rest of my life? Perhaps, in a deeply uncomfortable way, I wanted to prove to myself that my willpower was enough. I was strong enough to handle this on my own, and I was weak if I needed my life to be managed by drugs that messed with my brain chemistry. How silly that is, now that I think about it! Anxiety and depression are caused by many things, but one of the biggest things? Chemical imbalances in the brain!

The medication I use is an SSRI, a type of anti-depressants which prevents serotonin from being re-uptaken from the synapse right away. Serotonin can regulate mood and is proven to be linked to depressive disorders in the brain. By taking my medication, my brain is able to function with all its chemicals in balance, just like everyone else’s brain does naturally.

It’s unclear how long I’m going to be on my medication. It could be a year, 10 years, 20 year…? I don’t know. I don’t want to measure my journey to wellness by how many months I’m on my medication. I just want to feel happy and healthy in my own body again.

Is medication the “cure” for mental illness?

Contrary to what I thought taking medication would be like, it doesn’t actually fix anything really. 100%, it helped regulate my mood. I used to go through extremely dramatic fluctuations of heightened anxiety and low depression. When I started taking my medication, the severity of these episodes decreased significantly. However, that didn’t mean that they went away. In reality, my anxiety and depression were brought to a more manageable level so that I could function enough to help myself.

Medication works in part with other treatments, such as therapy. I outlined my experiences with that in my last blog post here. It was because my mood was more stabilized (and was less all over the place) that I was able to connect with myself more efficiently and make actual progress during therapy.

There’s no “magic cure” for mental illness. Medication is just part of the healing process. You can’t just start popping pills and expect for your problems to all disappear at the drop of a hat.

What was it like starting your medication? What is like continuing on it?

The process of starting a medication is never easy. In the first two weeks of taking my medication, it made me nauseous. As a person who hardly ever feels queasy (unless I’m having a panic attack, or coming close to one), it was very hard to manage at first. I definitely didn’t eat as much in the first two weeks, but once my body adjusted, I was lucky enough that that nausea stopped.

The very first time I took my medication, it was a wild time. My brain suddenly had an abundance of serotonin, which it was probably lacking in for a long time. I could not stop smiling for hours. I was a bit dizzy, and kept giggling, even though nothing was happening. I went to bed and probably had the best sleep I’d ever had. When I woke up, I felt like someone had hit my head with a positivity hammer. My eyes stayed wide open and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I felt like I was floating through clouds the entire day. Of course, every time succeeding that the effect was less and less intense, until it finally settled down. Now, I feel completely normal again, if not less emotionally extreme as I was before.

I’ve been on my medication for 9 months now, and it’s become a regular part of my life. One of the side effects to my medication is weight gain, so I have put on a few pounds. But other life circumstances also led me to some poor eating habits, so that definitely contributed to it as well. Otherwise, I’ve noticed no other negative changes. I’m lucky in the sense that my first medication worked well for me. Some people have to circulate through many different kinds until they find one that works for their body.

So overall, does your medication work? Do you still feel like you, even though your brain chemistry is being altered medicinally?

Overall, my medication does work. When I was in high school, managing my dramatic moods was exhausting. I was a seemingly normal girl on the surface, but underneath it all, I lived in a very constant state of general anxiety. And when I wasn’t anxious, I was depressed. It was incredibly tiring having my mind go at 150% with anxiety all the time. Since starting my medication, my generalized anxiety has calmed down incredibly. I used to be afraid that medication would change how I was. But the reality is that my medication allows me to be who I really am, past the anxious shell I lived in. I’m so thankful that I feel like I’m finally in control of my life and myself. It’s a great feeling!

Medications did wonders for me, but everyone is different! If you feel like you benefit from taking medication, I would definitely talk to your doctor and see what kind of treatment plan will work best for you.

Do you have any more questions about treating mental illnesses through medication?

– Carole

 

My Therapy Journey #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth

“It’s okay Carole, you’re safe here.”

There’s no doubt, those are some of the most important words I’ve ever heard. Who said them?

My therapist.

My mental health journey has been long and tedious, I’ve been shuffled through doctor after doctor, seen by multiple therapists, social workers, and counsellors. But I’d never seen any consistently, until this year.

My first encounter with therapy was when I was about 15-years-old. I went and saw a family counsellor with my parents, who my  mom booked me to see after I told her I was first experiencing anxiety. It was a new experience, scary even. I felt incredibly embarrassed, my palms sweating and my head down the entire time. When I left, I had the feeling that I never wanted to go back, clutching a sheet of “bad mindsets/coping mechanisms” that were supposed to help me identify what was leading me down the mental illness rabbit hole.

I don’t remember going back to “traditional” therapy for a while after that. I was seen by school guidance counsellors, a lot. I remember every time I sat in that office with the big glass walls that looked out into the school atrium, I sagged my shoulders low and looked down at my tightly squeezed hands resting on my lap. I didn’t want people to look in and see me. The first guidance counsellor was friendly, he had a kind face and genuinely wanted to help me. We talked for a bit. I was having problems in class. I was getting good grades and all, but I was crying. A lot.

When we talked, he noticed one thing about me, despite being an optimist about everyone, I was extremely pessimistic when it came to myself. I always looked down on myself. I was always trying to please people. I was crushing myself under the weight of expectation I had conjured up myself.

“You have to change the way you think,” he told me. “There is some good in every day. I promise.”

He opened the top drawer and pulled out a dark blue notebook. “Here,” he said, handing it to me. “Every day, I want you to reflect on your day. The good things and the bad things. I think you’ll start noticing everything’s not as bad as it seems.”

And I followed that for a while. Every night, I’d write the date and I’d start with the bad things. My terrible moods, or things that upset me. Then I would write the good things, food that I ate that made me happy, or memories I shared with my friends at school. Before long, I found that my school guidance counsellor was right. The positives really did outweigh the negatives.

That helped for a while. It definitely taught me to start thinking in a new way, but it wasn’t quite enough.

The next year, I was in the guidance office again. I was struggling to finish tests in my math class because of severe text anxiety. I cried after every class to the point where I couldn’t attend my next class, and my teacher told me I needed to get help. This time was more embarrassing than the last. My face burned with shame as I sat in my new guidance counsellor’s office (they had moved to an alphabetized system rather than a by-grade system, so I got moved to a different counsellor). Admitting I needed help was embarrassing. I felt like a failure. I was a smart kid. I was supposed to be able to write tests just like everyone else, just like I’d always been able to. But something about sitting in a room full of people with a test I had studied so hard for made my whole body feel fuzzy and numb. It was so frantic in my head, I couldn’t even read the questions. The sound of people’s pencils, the ticking of the clock, the sweatiness in my palms, paralyzed me. I looked at the ground. How did I explain that to someone? What would I do? What would they do?

Of course, I cried in there too. But my guidance counsellor, a gentle and compassionate woman, looked at me in a way that I just knew that she wanted to help me. She helped arranged for me to write tests in the guidance office by myself, with a little extra time so I could start to clear my head. My test scores sky-rocketed. Of course, I still had an excruciating level of anxiety, but those things helped me.

Along with that though, my guidance counsellor made me see the school social worker.

Now, it wasn’t that I didn’t like her. She was a sweet woman. She just… Didn’t understand me. It felt like I was talking to someone who thought I was 4 years old, like I didn’t understand my own feelings, and it made me feel like my problems were so much smaller than they felt like to me. We did ten minutes of meditation. She asked me if it helped. “I mean, I guess,” I remember saying, after 10 minutes of uncomfortable silence. Meditation, to me, didn’t really do that much. It just gave me time to do nothing but overthink. There was no such thing as “emptying my mind”. Thoughts just seeped into my consciousness and spiralled around in my head until they became monsters. But at the time, I didn’t know how to articulate that, and she didn’t understand what I meant. I stopped seeing her.

After that, my therapy journey is pretty much on par with what I’ve written in previous personal mental health stories. This year though, I had the opportunity to see a therapist consistently for about 6 months, I believe? Getting to see the same person who knew my story already was extremely helpful because we were able to make a lot of progress with each session.

Sometimes I would go in thinking I knew what I wanted to talk about, and we would end up talking about something else that I had no idea bothered me. Other times I had no idea what to say, but once she asked me a question, all these words just poured out of my mouth.

Therapy confirmed to me what I already knew, I am an extremely empathetic person who wants to make other people happy. All my life, this has been extremely hard for me to deal with, as I find it difficult to separate my own experiences from others. Things don’t just “roll off my back” but affect me in a much deeper way than people mean to. I’ve always considered this one of my faults, until my therapist taught me otherwise. She taught me its a wonderful thing to be able to connect with others on such a deep, emotional level, but with that ability comes the challenge to self-protect. I learned in therapy what it means to set boundaries for myself, and to be assertive when other people try to push my boundaries.

She followed me on my life journey these past few months and was able to understand where I was coming from by taking the time to get to know me and my experiences, both present and past.

What meant the most to me was the day we dealt with some of my deep rooted insecurities and pain, and I just started to cry. For the first time, it felt like I really saw who I was, and someone else did to, and they understood completely. It was cathartic, and taught me that I am the person I am because of all my experiences, the good and the painful, but it’s okay to be sad or angry about things that have happened. It’s okay to feel lost and afraid. It’s okay to feel.

I used to be afraid of how I felt. I’ve grown up being “oversensitive” and “overdramatic”. I was afraid of feeling something deeper than just the surface. Therapy taught me what it means to genuinely be myself, and not to be afraid of who I “thought I was” and who I “actually was”. Because we are who we want to be, and its up to me to make that decision for myself.

What I’ve learned from my multiple attempts at “therapy” from social workers, guidance counsellors, family counsellors, etc. is that it takes time to find someone you are comfortable with. When you’re able to connect with someone and feel safe with, the real work begins, and sometimes it takes time. But the things you learn about yourself can make the struggle worth it.

Have you ever gone to therapy? If not, would you try it? If so, how did you find it?

– Carole

 

Self-Care 101: Aloe Bud App Review #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth

Happy mental health awareness month! I am so happy that there is a whole month dedicated to mental health advocacy and awareness! To celebrate, I’m going to be posting a blog post every Sunday for the month of May.

Firstly, I’d like to thank Aloe Bud for sponsoring this blog post by giving me access to the premium version of the app for no cost so I can review their product in its fullest. With that being said, all the opinions found below are all my own, and they have not asked me to say anything specific in exchange for giving me premium access.

I first found out about Aloe Bud when it was still in its beta phases. I was browsing twitter (as usual), when I came across a thread of self-care apps that target taking care of our physical and mental health. One that stuck out to me was Aloe Bud. It caught my eye because of its pastel colour palette and cute design. I was disappointed to find out that the app wasn’t currently available on the app store because it was still being beta’d, and only a select people were testing the app out.

Regardless, I found Aloe Bud on twitter, and followed them for updates. From what I could tell, people were really enjoying the app. When the app was available for pre-order on the App Store, I was ecstatic. The app came out in late April, and I immediately went to explore.

Let me get into the app now.

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The app itself is very simple, which surprised me at first, but is not actually a bad thing. Basically, Aloe Bud is a customizable self-care app. What the app does is prompt you to select reminders for what you think is most important for you to remember. This includes a multitude of different things, including reminders to take your medication, reminding yourself to take a break from screens, prompting yourself to drink water, etc. You can select when you want Aloe Bud to send you notifications, including options such as “only on the weekends” or “every week day” or you can set your own parameters (for example, I set a reminder to “move” or “exercise” Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). At the time you select, Aloe Bud will send your phone a push notification that prompts you to do whatever you wanted to remind yourself and then you can check it off.

 

This is particularly useful if you’re a forgetful person (like me). I personally use Aloe Bud to remind me to take my medication for my depression/anxiety. Aloe Bud prompts me to take my medication at 7:30 every night, and I click off “check-in” after I’ve done it.

 

With the premium version, this becomes even more useful, because you can write your own reminders. With the basic version, there is a preset notification for each type of reminder. If you have the premium version, you can customize what the notifications say to remind you of specific things. For example, part of my own self-care routine is taking care of my emotional support animal, Timothy. I use Aloe Bud to remind myself to feed him dinner, using the “fuel” reminder, and customizing it to tell me to feed my rabbit at 8:30, in place of the generic reminder to feed myself. This makes Aloe Bud super customizable and flexible to the individual needs that come up in individuals lives.

Another great feature of Aloe Bud is its ability to function as a quick journal. There are lots of options that ask you specific questions to reflect on how you feel. My personal favourites are the “people” activity, which asks you to write an encouraging message to your future self, and the “breathe” activity, which asks you how you’re feeling at the current moment. Aloe Bud keeps track of all the things you write, and if you click the icon at the top, you can scroll through your recent inputs. You can read what you’ve written in the past, and see how your mood has changed.

 

Overall, I think this app is awesome! It’s super easy to figure out, has a clean and simple layout, and an aesthetic I can appreciate. I love the pixel style and the bright colours, which really set it apart from the sleek and smooth designs that most apps these days have. After using it for a couple of weeks, it has served me very well, because it’s so easy to customize it to suit your own needs. I definitely recommend you give it a try, because it finds a way to be helpful for everyone.

In terms of mental health, I think it’s really important and super awesome that developers have started to create resources for people to help themselves. By no means does Aloe Bud ever attempt to be a therapist, but rather its a tool that you can use to track your progress when seeking the help of a therapist, or even in your mental health journey in general. It’s great at reminding you to do important things to take care of yourself, like drinking water, eating food, taking a shower, etc. which I would have benefitted greatly from during my depressive episodes.

All in all, a super cute app with lots of potential. I’d love to see them incorporate some kind of calendar feature, so you can more easily see what you accomplish each day, and can easily find the dates you are looking for. Perhaps their little boxes on the home screen could be more specific about when you last checked in or filled them out. But otherwise, a great app.

How would you use a self-care app?

– Carole