Owning your mental health

Q and A with 2020 Young Alumni Award recipient

Living with mental illness since childhood, Tara Hebblethwaite’s path to becoming a vocal advocate for mental health began after graduating from Waterloo in 2013. Here she shares her experience and insights.

When you were a teenager, you managed to hide your struggles with anxiety, depression and bulimia. What do people need to understand about why young people might hide mental health struggles?

Tara HebblethwaiteI live with illnesses that society still struggles to understand. Due to stigma, I spent well over a decade hiding that from those I love most. Sadly, this experience is shared by far too many people who live with mental health issues, with many never seeking treatment due to the serious barriers that stigma creates. Even in a society that has become more inclusive and open to individuality, we still shadow mental illness with fear, misunderstanding, and misrepresentation.

For anyone who feels they know someone is suffering, my answer is this: do not look away. It can be tempting to look away and see the behaviours as just part of the ups and downs of life, but if your instinct is telling you that something is not right, trust yourself. Trust yourself to speak up and have a conversation. In just the simplicity of the question “are you okay”, barriers can be broken down and a life could be saved. I too, used to be afraid to ask people those daunting three words in case I could not handle the response or know how to help. But having been on the other side of that conversation, I can say that most people are not looking for an answer but rather to be seen, to be heard, to be accepted. Just a simple, honest exchange with another person can remind others they are not alone, however dark it may seem.

How did grief counselling help you realize you had to make a life change for yourself?

Grief does not involve stages that one passes through in a linear fashion. Rather, grief is like a roller coaster ride. Receiving grief counselling after witnessing a suicide was a ride I would have never lined up for, but it was one that changed my life. Sessions consisted of reliving, coping, and understanding present traumas and unmasking, accepting, and treating past experiences undealt with. Through the daunting process, I learned to heal, to accept all of myself, and that I needed to make a change to not lose any more days of my life to my mental illnesses. Every day before I learned to heal, I let stigma eat away at my health and steer me absent from counselling, medication, and seeking the resources that I needed. And although healing, like grief, is not a linear process, by removing stigma and through recovery I am continuously on an upwards growth to be mentally stronger and happier than ever, baring no shame living with mental illness.

What is your message to today’s teens?

At this moment, young people are facing unprecedented obstacles that are taking a toll on their mental health. However, if the events of 2020 have taught us anything, it is that we are stronger together when we speak up and change is possible when we unite. To today’s teens, I urge you to take a minute to reflect on your mental health and understand that there is no health without mental health. More importantly, I ask you to ask about the mental health of others around you. You will be amazed how simply a conversation about each other’s feelings can help create a culture of positivity and kindness. As tomorrow’s future, it is up to you to continue to be change-makers and create stepping stones that lead to acceptance and acknowledgement of the importance of mental health for all. As one of my mentors has so eloquently stated “Sometimes when life gives you a million reasons to not want to stay, you need just one person that looks at you, listens to you, helps you get help and validates how you feel” (Stefani Germanotta aka Lady Gaga).

How can we own our mental health or illness, but not allow it to define us?

We are the sum of everything that has happened to us in our lives; the good, the bad, and the ugly. For too long, I bashfully hid my mental illnesses because I refused to be stigmatized with the labels associated with them. I fought to try and redefine myself because I was convinced my illnesses were the very essence of who I was. But what took me so long to realize is that during all these years, my struggles with my mental health were central in my life and shaped me into the person I am today. And while those struggles continue to rotate between the forefront or the backburner, they have never stopped playing a role in the person I have become. In fact, my resilience, courage, determination, and empathy were all born out of the challenges mental illness has presented me with throughout my life. I realized for so long that I was viewing my life through a broken lens and it made it difficult to see that the only thing I was allowing to define me was stigma. So, when I say that my mental illness does not define me, I define it, it does not denounce my illnesses nor separate it from me but rather that we are defined by more than just one thing in our lives and that a mental illness cannot define anyone. It may be a part of you, but you are more than one simple aspect of yourself. You are and will always be more than just a mental illness because you are you, and you decide what you will define your life to be.

Read Tara Hebblethwaite’s Young Alumni Award citation.