One warm day in early autumn of 2004, I opened the doors to a vocational rehabilitation program for people with mental health issues. Years ago, I would have thought that I would be on the other end of treatment, providing support for people with what some prefer to call an emotional illness, not needing extensive counselling myself. After all, I had studied psychology and sociology and didn’t see myself in any of the case studies, but here I was having been referred to this program after being hospitalized.
As I passed through rooms throughout the building where people were keeping busy at work, I observed several of the people who were part of the program. They seemed to be at different stages of recovery but it’s hard to tell just by looking at someone. Some had been involved in the program longer than others, spending the bulk of their day doing activities that would prepare them to go out into the community and try to get a job at some point. Others who were new to the clubhouse would start out by taking on easier tasks.
I met quite a few people and eventually started my own self-help group amongst them. Many people would say that I didn’t look like someone with a mental illness, and I guess that until you sit down and listen to a person’s story, you don’t know what they’ve been through. You can’t tell if someone has a mental illness simply by looking at them. I was becoming fully functional in each part of my life and living on my own, with friends and a boyfriend. Eventually, I think some people determined that because I had a shiny forehead that was an indicator of my anxiety and must be proof that I had mental health issues. They hadn’t seen me fall apart or become unhinged. They hadn’t seen me at my worst – with a shaven head spending hours rocking side to side in a corner of my bedroom wishing I were dead. They’d met me after I had picked up all the pieces and put myself back together again and couldn’t imagine me otherwise. They spent time with me when I was at my best. My mental health issues didn’t creep up on me all at once in adulthood. They slowly unraveled overtime from the innocence of childhood and became more obvious as I got older.
A lot of the time, people don’t get the treatment they need because they don’t fit society’s stereotype of what mentally ill looks like. Originally, I went to see a psychiatrist with Social Anxiety, Depression and suicidal thoughts in the middle of my university education. I thought I had no reason to feel like this. I felt like I was wasting his time and stopped going to appointments. Although I was struggling I continued to work, go to school, and have a social life. I was still somewhat intact.
It was after having cancer that I went back and felt like I had a reason to seek treatment. During the radiation treatment given in isolation though, the nurse looked at me and took my psychiatric medication away, saying I didn’t need it. She didn’t know me or any of my problems other than that I was being treated for cancer. She said what I needed to feel better was a walk in the park. I guess I didn’t seem ‘crazy’ enough to meet her criteria for needing meds. So I spent the three days of isolation without my medication dealing with having cancer treatment. I managed to get through it and started to doubt whether I needed medication. After all, according to her I didn’t appear mentally ill. But I think it goes deeper than that and we shouldn’t wait for mental illness to surface in a more serious form. If we wait to seek therapy until we ‘look insane’ enough according to others, whatever that looks like, it could be too late.
About Rosa Dawson
I'm a 40 year old female from Ontario, Canada. I have first-hand experience with mental health. Officially diagnosed with being in the early stages of schizoaffective disorder in 2004, I struggle with depression and schizophrenia. I've had suicidal thoughts for many years and on a few occasions I have tried to kill myself. With a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and Sociology, I have studied mental illness with the goal of making a positive difference in the lives of others. Looking back, although I would not know it at the time, I probably had issues at a young age. I believe society has yet to take a proactive approach to mental health. With my writing, I wish to reach as many people as possible with this message: You should not suffer in silence. You are not alone.