Let’s talk

 Illustration by Hana Shafi.

[W]hen my anxiety was at its worst, I closed my eyes with a pen in hand and decided I would draw it. I opened my eyes and stared at the page. This is what I saw:

Blind drawing, Hana Shafi

Blind drawing, Hana Shafi

It was a reality check that there was something deeply wrong. There was nothing normal or OK or ignorable about the image before me. So it was then that I decided to seek help. First, I went to my doctor. She was kind and she listened to me, but ultimately she just didn’t have the time to give me some one-on-one therapy. With other patients in the waiting room, she wrote me up a prescription and I left.

Pills can really help; but they aren’t everything. At the time it felt like pills were all I needed—it was summer time, I was carefree. Then school approached and the anxiety spiked again. My pills had betrayed me; they lost their edge. My doctor suggested some talk therapy. That’s when I decided to book an appointment with a counsellor at Ryerson.

I was nervous before my first appointment. Where does one even begin to start when talking—honestly—about their mental health concerns? To say there was a lump in my throat is an understatement because if felt like there was a boulder going down my esophagus as I knocked on the door of her office. In a way, I was excited—here was someone who was going to listen and who was going to give me proper advice. But in my head, all I could see was some awkward scenario starting with “Hi, I’m Hana, I’m anxious and sad, please help me.”

In a way, it kind of did go like that. I filled out a questionnaire so she could see how bad things really were: how often I had negative feelings, whether I was abusing drugs, self-harming or contemplating suicide. But once the paperwork was out of the way, I started to feel more comfortable. I could feel that, even though she must’ve seen tons of kids just like me, it wasn’t impersonal or cold; she actually cared.

I generally saw my counsellor either once a week (if I was lucky) or once every two weeks. Appointments get filled fast. With the rate of suicides increasing among post-secondary students, as well as the rate of students reporting that they feel overwhelming anxiety, mental health services might have trouble keeping up. Not all students who seek help are getting the support they really need, so some turn to outside counselling resources, such as those provided by the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health.

I guess I was one of the lucky ones. When I needed my counsellor, she was still there even if an appointment wasn’t available. When I had an anxiety attack and left work saying I had a stomachache, I went straight to her office. I didn’t have an appointment, but it was an emergency. She welcomed me in.

When school was out for the winter and I began having suicidal thoughts, I emailed her. She sent me a back a ton of resources and online exercises I could do, and she called me the next morning. She even asked that I call her midweek, just to say that I was OK. It felt nice to know that I had someone watching out for me, whose job it was to make sure that people like me were doing OK.

Talking to a professional really does make a big difference. Even when friends are doing all they can to be there for you, a mental health professional knows the right questions to ask. And answering those questions made things clearer to me, made me understand the sources of my anxiety and my depression and made me confront some scary truths about my life, which, at the end of the day, were worth confronting.

Counselling was an easily accessible, free and professional resource on hand— emphasis on the word free—for students, like me, who struggle with a meagre student budget and may not be able to access therapy otherwise.

Today, Jan. 28, marks the fourth Bell Let’s Talk Day, an initiative that aims to end the stigma surrounding mental illness and contribute to research in mental health. Bell Let’s Talk Day challenges the difficulty in talking about mental illness and the often-negative response it gets.

Imagine if we treated other illnesses the way we treated mental illness; imagine we told a kid with a broken bone to suck it up, a cancer patient to just get over it, a person experiencing a heart attack to just look on the bright side. Even though mental illness is invisible, the pain and the consequences of the illness feel just the same as a physical illness. And the reality is, that for some, mental illness becomes terminal.

If I could have discussed my mental health more easily, I wouldn’t have had to lie to my professors, my employers and my parents about why I just couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, why I seemed to be perpetually exhausted and unable to concentrate. Initiatives like Bell Let’s Talk Day aim to do exactly that—they encourage a culture of openness, and make mental health a topic of discussion that doesn’t make people uncomfortable, angry or dismissive.

Even though my struggle with anxiety and depression has not ended, receiving counselling and talking openly about it has made the load feel a little lighter.