Mental illness, stigma-fighting and sharing so others know they’re not alone

Emily Distefano, The Carman Valley Leader

Carman Collegiate student Brooklyn Platt is sharing her story. (SUPPLIED PHOTO)

Carman Collegiate student Brooklyn Platt is sharing her story. (SUPPLIED PHOTO)

Carman Collegiate grade 12 student Brooklyn Platt is hoping her viral Bell Let’s Talk video will help extend the conversation about mental illness beyond a one-day event.

The 17-year-old shared her struggles with depression, anxiety and self-harming on January 24.

The response she got has been overwhelming, but “crazy amazing,” she said.

“It’s not a bad overwhelming, it’s just overwhelmingly amazing,” she said last week. “I’ve had so many people reach out to me and message me their support...I said it would be worth it if just one person could be affected by this speech, and I think like three hundred people have messaged me and my mom.”

Quite a few people have opened up to her about their own struggles with mental illness; a few have shared their own thoughts of self-harm.

Speaking at the high school’s Bell Let’s Talk event was Platt’s idea. When Carman Collegiate teacher and family friend Jacquie Metcalf started talking to her about Bell Let’s Talk events to support mental health awareness at the school, she volunteered to share her story even though the thought of speaking in front of a large group made her anxious. She said she started typing her speech as soon as she decided to do it, and finished in 40 minutes.

She read it to her mom, who started crying, and then a few teachers, who also started crying.

The night before the speech, she decided she couldn’t do it. But with support from her best friend, she managed to get up on stage and deliver the speech she prepared.

She spoke to the Valley Leader about how her struggle with mental illness started.

“About a year and a half ago I started feeling different,” she said.

Although she knows people in her family struggle with depression, she didn’t realize right away that she was dealing with a mental illness and she didn’t know much about it. For the first few months she thought that it was just the result of changing schools.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed about, I just always thought I’m active, I’m happy, I’m really family-oriented - I would never have depression,” she remembered thinking. “But really, the happiest people can have a mental illness.”

She did a lot of reading online, opened up to her mom, and started to seek out help.

But she said that she experienced the stigma of mental illness most in the beginning phases of trying to access the help she needed.

“When I started dealing with depression and anxiety, and taking different medications, and talking to counselors, and going to the hospital, I realized how much of a stigma there is in mental health and how our mental health system really does need a lot of work in Manitoba,” she said. “It’s hard to find a counselor that really works for you. I didn’t connect with them, I didn’t feel open. I just put on my face and acted like I was fine just so I could get through the appointment and leave.”

She said she had thoughts of hurting herself before going on medication, but it was soon afterward that she attempted it.

“I was trying counseling and that’s when I started feeling really down again,” she said. “I was like, well this medication isn’t working and I’m supposed to be feeling better. I’m not getting better talking to these counselors and I don’t feel comfortable with them. I have nobody and none of my friends or anybody I really knew except for my family knew that I was struggling so I felt really trapped and lost and that’s when I went to suicide for the first time.”

“I do still feel alone sometimes, to this day,” she added. “I know I’m not, but it’s what depression does to you. I just did that speech and it had 18,000 views and I’ve had so many comments and texts and messages, but I still will lay in bed when I’m feeling down and still feel really lonely and alone.”

She credits her time in a child and adult treatment centre Brandon for giving her the tools to cope with those moments.

“That place probably saved my life,” she said.

The importance of ending the stigma

According to Statistics Canada, suicide is the second leading cause of death for young Canadians between ages 10 and 24.

In 2011, 227 Canadian youth between ages 10 and 19 died by suicide as did an additional 301 young adults between ages 20 and 24. Suicide was the cause of 23% of all deaths among 15 to 24-year-olds (almost 1 in 4 deaths) and 11% of deaths among 10-14-year-olds.

So when Platt talks about what she really wants other people dealing with mental illness to understand, she focuses on the fact that they are not alone.

“You’re not alone, and I just emphasize that so much,” she said.

For those who are dealing with thoughts of self-harm, she has a message of hope. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.

“Everybody always says don’t do it...but I mean, anybody can say that. Or they say, you’ll just get better. That’s when I would really feel alone. Now I’m saying it: you will get better. It’s a hard journey to go through...but in the end it makes you so much stronger.”

For those who want to help a loved one suffering from depression, Platt said it’s more about presence than anything else.

“For a lot of people it’s hard. They want to be there for their friends and family, but they don’t know how to go about it,” she said.

She also said asking what’s wrong all the time isn’t the most helpful strategy, but going out of your way to make sure your loved one knows you’re there for them is.

“Just say, I’m here,” she said, noting that making time to be with them, wherever they’re at, is vital.

“Sometimes you just need to leave someone where they are laying in their bed, but maybe not leaving them alone, Text them, sit with them in their show love and support is just so amazing and what is needed when dealing with a mental illness.”

Platt hopes that through sharing stories and being there to support one another, we can end the stigma associated with mental illness.

“There’s a lot of reasons to feel alone. They’re feeling trapped like they can’t get help...[so] we really need to end the stigma, even end the stigma that’s within the stigma,” she said. “We need to just start caring about everyone.

“A mental illness is an illness just like cancer and we need to understand that and we need hospitals to understand that. And we need people that are there for us, and we need our families and friends to be there for us because there’s so many teens with depression and anxiety and people with mental illnesses that are feeling alone, and harming themselves, and taking their lives and it’s so sad.”

The "stigma within the stigma" is one she said she has noticed inside the mental health system, where people sometimes rank mental illnesses in a hierarchy of importance. It is important to her that no one feels their illness isn’t serious enough to be taken seriously.

“Whether you’re dealing with severe depression, or you have OCD, or you have a different mental illness: everything is equal and nothing is more important than another,” she said. “We’re all equal, so don’t feel alone even if you feel like it’s not a big deal. It is a big deal.”