How many of you started to feel “off” long before you began seeking help? Could you put what you were feeling into words? As a teenager, I could understand that I felt poorly for pretty long periods of time but I didn’t really know how to communicate it. I had heard of depression but I always assumed that it referred to severe cases where people couldn’t get out of bed, so I figured I was just being a pessimistic person. I constantly criticized myself for feeling sad or unmotivated, compounding my negative feelings with more guilt. If I had stronger mental health literacy as a child and an adolescent, I believe I could have spoken up for myself to seek help earlier.

Health literacy is the ability to access, understand and communicate information in order to make informed choices that promote and improve health. I think most children in Canada grow up with a pretty good idea of how to stay physically healthy – we learn about eating our fruits and vegetables, washing our hands, and getting a good night’s sleep. When we feel ill, we know the right words to use in order to explain to our parents, teachers, and other adults how we’re feeling. But where is the dialogue about mental health? Mental health literacy should feature a lot more prominently in public schools.

Mental Health

The first time I ever remember studying mental illnesses was in grade eleven. By then, I had already formed what I thought were solid ideas about happiness, sadness, anger and worry, among other emotions. My mind already conjured up stereotypical images when I heard the words “schizophrenia” or “bipolar”. I knew that people with a mental illness could take medications or see a therapist, but I didn’t have the first clue about how it worked. Mental illness still seemed like a very foreign concept – it could happen to other people, but I didn’t see what it had to do with my own life. I didn’t understand how my own emotions could warp and exaggerate themselves into a mental illness.

Fast forward a couple years later, I was feeling more and more depressed in my first year of university. Eventually anxiety set in. I just kept telling myself that I needed to get over it. I was so sick of my own inability to cope and I was convinced that it was all my fault. I did seek help during that first year, but it has been a long uphill battle to get the best care and make the best choices for myself. I spent several years trusting that the doctors and experts would take care of everything for me, not understanding that I had to advocate for myself as a patient and what worked best for me. I let a psychologist tell me what to think even when my gut told me he was full of himself. I let doctors throw medications at me until I realized how much I needed a holistic approach on top of a chemical boost. Even though I had the help of professionals, family and friends, I still felt alone and scared because I didn’t know what was happening to me. If mental health literacy had been part of my childhood education, I could have been more prepared.

Back when I was growing up I assumed that you were either a happy, well-adjusted person, or there was something wrong with you. I spent several years blaming myself for my uncontrollable feelings of sadness and worry. I desperately hoped the health care system would “fix” me, and it was only after many many months of discouragement and hopelessness that I started to learn how I could advocate for myself. Now I feel stronger, more in control, and more aware of what’s happening to me. I wish every child and teenager could learn the mental health literacy skills needed to identify what they’re feeling and how to be an engaged patient when asking for help. If we started talking to children about mental illness earlier, they wouldn’t have to be thrown into it further down the road. It’s not the whole battle, but it could save a lot of time and heartache.

Photo credit: “Mental Health” by Homeless Hub on Flickr.

About Jasmin Yee

Jasmin Yee is an Ottawa-based young professional who has dealt with mental illness since the end of high school. Now 24, she has a passion for mental health advocacy and breaking down the barriers that make it so hard to talk publicly about mental illness. She writes about her experiences with depression and anxiety on her blog, as well as her thoughts on how to reduce stigma. Jasmin aims to develop a career in health promotion so that she can connect with at-risk communities and enable them to take care of their mental health.

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