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Lose the 'Suck It Up' Mentality When Talking About Mental Illness

01/29/2015 01:43 EST | Updated 03/31/2015 05:59 EDT

Yesterday was Bell Let's Talk Day - the fifth year that the Canadian mega-media company sponsored a national conversation about mental health.

It's a desperately important topic for a lot of reasons, not the least of which because it truly is the last frontier in health taboos. People speak freely about breast, colon and prostate cancers today; and rightly so. But think back 20, 25 or 30 years; to a time when news about those "dirty" cancers were only shared in hushed tones in empty rooms.

It's still like that for people with mental illness.

A person with a brain tumour would watch their friends and community rally around them. But if that same organ is attacked in a different way, it's a whole different ballgame. They keep their secret to themselves, afraid that people will view them as weak or damaged.

It's still like that for their loved ones, too. Parents of children with cancer, muscular dystrophy or a heart ailment find immediate support. But parents of children with profound mental illnesses like schizophrenia -- or of children who live with those crippling forms of anxiety -- often carry that burden alone, because they assume people will not understand.

Sadly, in many cases, people don't. The "suck it up" mentality still rules when it comes to understanding mental illness, and in 2015, it just should not fly.

You suck it up when you have to work on a weekend or a holiday when everyone else is off, or when you were reckless the night before and have to face the day with a hangover. You don't just suck it up when you have a mental illness because people around you think you should be okay.

It's time for us to do better.

Mental illness doesn't discriminate by race, or gender or level of education. It doesn't care if you're rich or poor. And once it has its hold, it's loath to let it go. Which is why we have to de-stigmatize it; make treatment as common to talk about as dialysis or chemotherapy and bring it from the darkness into the light.

And the best way to do that is to talk openly and honestly about our own experiences.

Conversations about breast and prostate health and healthy intestinal tracts are commonplace in 2015, thanks to the courage of the people who lived with it and those who loved and supported them. Pink ribbons are worn by males and females of all ages, so hard is it to find someone unaffected by breast cancer. Young men barely old enough to grow whiskers participate in Movember to support the fathers, uncles, grandfathers and teachers who live with the disease.

Yet we still see people with mental illnesses -- and the people who love them -- suffering in silence.

As the person who manages my employer's social media sites, I wrote a post on Wednesday, encouraging people to be on the lookout for signs that their friends, loved ones, colleagues or students may be struggling with some form of mental illness. I urged them to share the post - and their stories.

In that moment, it occurred to me that I couldn't expect people to share their stories if I was not willing to share my own.

Last year, I developed a cough that no amount of medication would shake. It started in September, and gained a really good foothold in October. By November, I could barely eke out a few words without barking like a madwoman. By the time I took some time off work, I had coughed so hard my throat bled.

I was exhausted from coughing. My entire body hurt. I found it almost impossible to concentrate and couldn't do anything without a list. I had no energy. I gained weight.

After X-rays and a CT scan, it was determined that there was nothing physically wrong. Ultimately, my doctor and I got to the heart of the matter, and I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression.

I'm fortunate. My illness was related to circumstances, none of which are important now to anyone but me. The important thing is; I had a family and friends who recognized something was wrong and supported me, a doctor who went above and beyond to ensure he got the right diagnosis and a therapist who helped me find myself again.

As my best friend said to me at the time; "You felt like you had no voice, and so you literally lost your voice."

In hindsight, of course, it all makes perfect sense. I had lost interest in many of the things I had previously enjoyed. I cut short social outings and sat quietly while others had conversations. I had zero ability to concentrate and zero confidence. I did not contribute because I felt I had nothing to offer. Routine tasks like putting away the laundry would take an hour because I would be distracted by anything and everything.

I had become a passive observer of life, but was too in the middle of it to realize that anything was wrong.

Even when my mother called me on Thanksgiving to see why I had left our family dinner before the dessert plates had even been cleared, and said I hadn't seemed like myself, I didn't realize that something was awry.

That's the thing about depression. When you're in the thick of it, you don't realize how far wrong things have gone; which is why it's important for all of us to look out for each other, and to watch for those subtle cues and clues that something is amiss with the people we love. It's hard to ask someone "Are you in trouble?" or "Do you need help?" and even "Are you OK?" But it's important to find the courage it takes to ask the question, even if you risk offending someone not yet willing to admit to -- or aware of -- a problem.

It's even harder to say "I need some help" and "I'm not OK," but it's equally important to speak up.

The chances are, whatever side of the situation you're on, someone is waiting to be asked.

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