Reacting To Loss

I attended a small rural high school about three hours west of Oshawa. When I think of a small high school like the one I attended, I think of closeness and simplicity. I think of a place where everyone knows everyone, where news travels fast, and where your prom takes place in the high school gym. Nothing bad ever seems to happen, so when it does, it hits the community hard.

Last week, the small high school I attended had to grieve the loss of a sixteen-year-old student. He committed suicide. I didn’t know him personally, but like hundreds of other community members, I feel the loss with a heavy heart. My brothers still attend the high school, and my mom still supplies as a vice principal there. I see friends on Facebook sharing his obituary with comments suggesting he was “always smiling” and was “always nice to everyone.” After a week of trying to make sense of the event, I decided to finally put my thoughts into words.

My dad called me the other night and told me how upset my mom was about this student’s passing, and how as a principal she always has the mentality that things can become better for every student. She said, only weeks before his passing, he was singing karaoke at a school assembly, to which he said “I didn’t think I had it in me.” From an educator’s perspective, this only seemed like progress. A student that was usually shy and uncomfortable was coming out of his shell, and was doing things that made him seem fearless. My dad then proceeded to tell me that when he was a teenager, he never heard of anyone committing suicide. In my short nineteen years, I can name four people. I can name four high school students that struggled so much with their mental illness that they decided to take their own lives, all of which had peers post things like “they were always smiling” and “they were so friendly to everyone” with a link connecting to an obituary that should not yet exist.

Losses like this confuse and frustrate me. I see so easily online the amount of support that is offered. Unfortunately, this support becomes so evident when it is too late. I’m not saying support doesn’t exist offline – it certainly does – but I’m saying that it breaks my heart to see the utmost support when it is too late. I wish that someone had recognized the hurt in each person lost to suicide before they were gone. I wish that instead of hiding behind a smile, people were real and honest about how they feel, and I wish the receivers of those messages only listened to understand and were empathetic. Again, I’m not saying this is always the case. I know a lot of people that express the need for support while dealing with mental health issues. I mean, UOIT’s Mental Health Services are always busy assisting a number of students. To me, that is excellent news because it means that people care about themselves enough to get help they feel they need.

I don’t know if I still have completely comprehended how I feel about writing this post. I think we will always be confused about suicide, and mental illness as a whole. I think overall, I want the experiences I have had as a community member who has witnessed the devastation of suicide on a community to help others. Please, please, PLEASE – if you ever feel lost, if you ever feel worthless, talk to someone. I have seen so often how willing people are to help a stranger. It’s human nature. We help one another. Look for the Campus Connected stickers on laptops, seek out the help of your friends, teachers, parents, whoever you trust; people want you around. I wish I didn’t have this weight on my chest. I wish I didn’t have to feel so sad for the family and friends of the boy who attended my old high school. I wish he knew how missed he is. I wish he knew that someone he never even met wishes he was still here.

I hope someday that all suicidal thoughts can be overcome. I hope all people will one day realize that there is so much more to life than what is happening in the moments you feel worthless. I hope someday, all people believe that the world wants more for them, and that there are so many people that want to help conquer mental illness.

I’m going to leave off with a quote by Phil Donahue: “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Please let people in. Let them help you if you feel you need it. No matter who you are, you’re too much to lose.

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Watching Someone Struggle With Their Mental Health

After a long four-month summer, the return to school has finally come. Like many students, I never find returning to school very easy, especially after having four months to soak up the sun while avoiding textbooks and assignments. Either way, I packed up my things and moved back to Oshawa to continue my studies.

The transition from summer to school was especially hard on me this year. Within the first three days of classes, my younger brother had been in a serious dirt biking accident, forcing him to be airlifted to a hospital in London where he spent the night. Of course, my first thought was, “somehow I have to get home!” but my Dad assured me that the doctors said he was able to go home, and despite a few stitches and bruises, would be fine. I sighed out some relief, thinking that everything really was “fine”.

I have never really seen first hand the symptoms of a concussion or understood the possible severity of them, nor had I ever connected concussions with mental health. That was until I noticed a huge difference in the way my brother acted before and after his accident. Not only had he become very short-tempered, but he also became frustrated during conversations when he could not keep up. His usual confident and put-together self had become extremely emotional, unhappy, and anxious. Even talking to him on the phone, I noticed.

I don’t know if there is anything more heartbreaking than watching someone you care about struggle with their own mental health, and I know it is something people have to do all the time, whether it be a friend or a family member. Not only do I find it heartbreaking, but I find it frustrating. How can you help them? What should you do? What should you not do? All these questions rolled through my mind every day. If I discovered anything from this journey of witnessing someone you care about struggle with mental health, it was these three things:

  1. Most importantly, listen. I am someone who is eager to give advice and recommend services, but if one thing became obvious to me it is that listening for the sake of listening is so much more beneficial than listening to give advice. A lot of the time, I don’t even think my brother knew what was bothering him, but talking about how he was feeling often made him feel a lot better. Sometimes you need to exhale stress before you can inhale advice.
  2. Remind the person you care about that you care about them! This sounds silly. Especially for a relationship like the one between my brother and I, it is obvious that I care about him. When something like a concussion impacts your mental well-being, it is nice to know that people have empathy. They want to understand how you feel, and they want to connect to how you feel. I’ll use the classic “put yourself in another’s shoes” quote. People want to know that they are not alone.
  3. Erase stigma from your mind. I found this way more difficult than it sounds. I find that a lot of people need to see mental health on a continuum, and they ask themselves where this person belongs on the line. Are they just having a bad day? Is this more serious than I think it is? I think at first I believed that because doctors said “he’s fine”, the mental battles my brother has been facing were “just bad days”. I understand now that I know so little about how he feels, and I know no one else’s experiences or how I should react to their internal struggles. Be open-minded, and believe what comes from the main source. When my brother tells me how he feels, I believe it, and I do my best to understand it. I think this is how we should treat all people, whether it just be a “bad day” or something more serious.

I won’t claim to be a professional when it comes to mental health or mental illnesses, but I am someone, who like many others, has witnessed the impacts a poor mental health can have on someone. If I can make any suggestions based on what I have experienced with my brother, it is that we need to believe everyone is worth hearing. Everyone’s feelings are valid, and everyone deserves a chance to feel better about themselves. Be someone that can be empathetic, and be someone who isn’t afraid to speak up if you feel like you need to talk. Mental health is so fragile, and I believe everyone has been challenged by their mental health at some point in their lives. We should be open-minded, listen to understand, care about others, and erase the stigma that surrounds mental health.

The Media and our Views on Mental Illness

Around exam time, students are obviously stressed. Stress is normal. I actually believe it’s healthy. I know students try to make light of their stress, and it’s probably a good way to take a breath amidst the stress of school. One thing that caught my attention recently though was through a speech one of my fellow classmates did, which was based around how people view mental illness thanks to the media. This got me asking myself, “have I ever romanticized or made light of a mental illness?”

I think the first time I realized how often we brush off signs of mental illness was when I saw a tweet around exam time that displayed the photo of Britney Spears shaving her head, with the caption “exams got me as stressed as Britney”. I will admit, I was guilty of laughing along with this, and maybe even retweeting it. But when I really thought about it, this was one moment where I did not consider how often the media displays mental illnesses as humorous or not as serious issues.

After hearing my classmates speech, I finally began to understand how the media impacts our views of mental illness. Think of the countless celebrities that have entered rehab, and how the media displayed their actions. Not one headline suggested helping these people, and rarely did it suggest mental illness as an impact at all. No wonder we sometimes confuse seeking attention with an internal mental battle. What we see in the media is what we believe, whether or not we think that is true. In our daily lives we come across more advertisements and media displays than ever before, and it shapes how we think.

Not only do I hope people can have an eye opening moment like I did through my classmate’s speech, but I hope people actually critically think about what they see. I know that since having my eyes opened to a new view on the media and how it shapes our views on mental illness, I have reconsidered retweeting any “stressed like Britney” tweets. I hope you do the same.

Moving Away From Home- How A New Atmosphere Challenged and Supported my Mental Health

Despite consistently promising people that my biggest fear is heights, I believe it could be change. I never realized it until University, but when things change, you can usually count me out. Everything from moving to a new house to entering high school seemed to frighten me, simply because it was new, and it was change. When I moved three hours from my rural home town to the big city of Oshawa, it felt equivalent to standing on the edge of the highest cliff I’d ever climbed. I was terrified, afraid to fail and to fall. Moving away from home challenged my mental health in more ways than I had ever imagined. I didn’t realize though, it was also strengthening my courage, self confidence, and independence.

I moved into residence at UOIT last year to continue my education in post secondary studies. For many of us, University has to become a home away from home. Until that moment came for me though, there were a lot of moments I felt helpless and like I was alone in the city full of people. I thought I had no friends, and recall many phone calls late at night with my mom, telling her how everyone around me was making friends, and I was not. I think for a lot of people, self-confidence is a huge issue when moving to a new place, just as it was for me. In my small town, I had already established who my friends were, and I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to make any more. After finally building up the nerve to leave my little residence room and hunt for friends, I realized there were a lot of people doing what I was doing- fearing change and hiding from new experiences.

After finally realizing that the experience of University was a new opportunity rather than a horrible change, I found myself surrounded by people that were very much like me, and that cared about me as a friend. When I dragged my bags to University last September, I only dreaded what I was leaving behind. After taking a moment to allow myself to find change as a positive thing, I found myself gaining not only a better experience during first year, but also finding more courage, better self-esteem and more independence.

If you can take anything from my experience, take this: change is okay. I am still trying to convince myself of the same thing, but I have realized time and time again that change has often presented me with some of the best moments of my life. Moving away from the home that I was comfortable in really challenged me to become more confident in myself. I believe that the stresses and insecurities I had while moving away from home were normal. They challenged me, yes, but they were normal. I overcame them, and while doing so, found a more confident and independent me at the end.

Being A Friend To Someone With Mental Illnesses

As a University student, stress is just like breakfast… you expect to have it everyday. For some, handling stress is easy and it does not overwhelm them in their University lives. I am one of those people. Stress comes and goes and I deal with it when it is presented to me. Unfortunately for many, stress is an overwhelming concept that does not push them to accomplish, but rather drags them down and forces them to give up rather than to push through. As someone who has been able to keep up with school and social life for as long as I can remember, being friends with people that cannot do this is a constant challenge.

Statistics show that suicide rates are higher in rural areas like the small town I grew up in, and unfortunately, I knew too many people that ended their lives at a very young age due to the inability to deal with stress, depression, and anxiety. Guilt takes over many people when things like this happen. What could I have done as a friend to stop this from happening? Did I contribute to their stress? Was I a good enough friend? These questions tend to appear in the minds of those that were close to victims of suicide and mental illness. So, how can you be a friend to someone that has a mental illness?

Again, I know a lot of people that have suffered from a lot of different types of mental illness, so over many encounters, I have learned a few ways to be a better friend to those that may need the support. One important thing to remember is there is no stupid feeling. People feel the way they feel, and just as you can’t talk yourself out of cancer, you can’t talk yourself out of a mental illness. I have found that there have been countless times at wild hours of the night that I’ve wanted to hangup the phone and go to sleep more than anything in the world-but I keep this thought in mind. The person on the other end of the phone is depending on your support. The hardest thing to do is be consistent in providing support.

Additionally, we don’t have to act like stranger-robots around everyone. You are allowed to wave to people you don’t know, and it’s completely normal as a human to talk to people you don’t know. Socialization is key, and according to sociological research, next to food and water, the highest necessity for human life is acceptance and self-actualization. By just providing people with the knowledge that you are there for them, you could be helping them through a battle of the mind, whether they know it or not.

Mental illnesses are tough illnesses to understand, and I am in no way saying that supporting someone with kindness is going to cure them, but as a person, I know it can sure help. It sounds like an easy thing to do, but I have found time and time again that when a friend calls out to you for help, it is easy to assume they are overreacting. We need to remember that people rely on each other for support, and through a battle with mental illness, it could really help.