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A love letter to those with mental illness

No matter how hopeless things seem, you are not alone

openloveletter - janis
Image Credits: Janis McMath

Hey there. My name is Max, and if you’re reading this then I love you.

For years, I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety. This past month, that struggle has become the defining factor of my life. My doctor calls it a relapse. I call it a marathon.

Initially I had misgivings about writing this down for a student population of 35,000 to read, but I changed my mind based on two key realizations: 1) That I always feel better when I read about others opening up about their battles with mental illness, and I might as well return the favour; and 2) That I’m already living with this thing every day, so there’s no use lying about it, either to myself or anyone else.

My experience with mental illness has been unique, and it’s not my intention to paint with broad strokes or compare my pain with anyone else’s. Depression, for me, has been mostly centred around fear. Fear that I’ll always feel this way. Fear that I’ll never enjoy anything again. Fear that I’ll push away those whom I love the most. Fear that they never liked me much in the first place. Fear that I’ll lose everything I’ve worked so hard to accomplish, or that none of it ever really mattered anyway.

Last month, I celebrated my 23rd birthday in the back of my parent’s van, barely able to communicate through sobs. I’m not the kind of person who cries — even the ending of Toy Story 3 left me dry-eyed. But there in the backseat, being driven away from the job I love because I could barely concentrate or keep myself from panicking, I knew I was in a bad place.

I’m sure many readers will empathize. Mental illness is incredibly common: about 20 percent of Canadians will experience some form of mental illness in their lifetime, and eight percent of those will battle major depression. (These stats are likely lowball estimates, given the number of people who never report their struggles.)

There in the backseat, unable to keep myself from panicking, I knew I was in a bad place.

Young people in particular face an uphill climb, as suicide accounts for roughly a quarter of the death rate among those aged 15–24. Yet only about half of those living with anxiety or depression will ever reach out to a professional.

Though people from all walks of life can and do experience mental illness, certain groups are particularly at risk, including Aboriginal, LGBTQ, and immigrant populations. Students are also at particular risk of mental illness, given the toxic mix of high stress and low incomes that is such a big part of university life.

It’s not my intention to discourage you by sharing these numbers. In fact, here’s one statistic that might actually make you feel better: a whopping 80 percent of those who receive treatment for their depression end up seeing pronounced benefits. That so few people seek out help when they need it — especially given that this help is usually effective — is deeply saddening.

Which brings me back to you.

You may be battling stress you think you can’t handle, or fighting mental illness silently, afraid of the rejection and humiliation you might face by sharing it. You may be telling yourself that you’ll never be OK again. I’m not going to pretend that I know exactly what you’re going through, but I do know that I’ve been to those kinds of dark and scary places before.

So when it feels like no one understands you and no one cares, I want you to remember that there are others out there fighting the same battle you are. Not all of them will win, and not all of them will show you their scars. But there is hope, and there are people out there who believe in you, even if they’ve never met you. There are doctors and therapists who want to help you. There are resources and support groups and chatrooms and TV shows and video games and bike rides and recipe books and so, so much more.

You are worthy of love. You deserve to be happy. You are not alone.

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