Growing Up Into A Mental Health Advocate

Our family is the first impression we have from the real world. We grow up following the steps of other family members and often rely on them as the only source of support as children and teenagers. No one can deny the crucial role of parents and family members in our lives. Family relations are complicated and each family has its own set of challenges and dynamics. In many cases the parents carry mental health challenges with them from their past and without acknowledging and addressing the problem they impact their children’s lives. Natalie is an inspirational 26 year old who experienced divorce very young. She also lived part of her life with her father who battled alcohol addiction. She is now a mental health advocate in a charity promoting anti-stigma conversations through art.

How would you say mental health has influenced your life and your family?

Mental illness has heavily influenced me, I was surrounded by people who were struggling with it while not completely understanding it. I grew up in an environment where mental health struggles weren't overly acknowledged. It was encouraged with my mother more, but not with my father. His drinking was kept quiet and felt to be shameful for us to discuss. My parents were divorced at a very young age so when I got to highschool I would spend a week with my mother & a week with my father. The time I spent at my father's house I became really depressed and anxious. That environment heavily influenced my teenage years, to the point where I struggled with depression. It continued to manifest primarily in depression and social anxiety in my early years of university. It caused me to drink quite a bit in a really negative way as a coping mechanism. My father's drinking has really always had a prevalent impact on my life and how we grew up.

Other than your mom, who would you talk to or confide in during your early years?

I had a close friend who is still one of my best friends to this day because she’s seen me go through that. She was really the only one I expressed anything to at that time. The first time I ever sought out counselling was in my final year of high school. I was going to see a counsellor to talk about University; but the night before, my father had been drunk and said really inappropriate things to me so I showed up visibly upset. I was crying and so my appointment with a guidance counsellor turned into a really helpful conversation. Two or three years later when I was in university and I was really struggling I remembered how nice that was so I actually sought out counselling. I saw a therapist in university for 2 solid years.

Did that help?

100% yes. It was amazing.  Acknowledging my family dynamic and how my father's drinking had an impact on me was very helpful. Even though my father's drinking was something that we all wanted to put under the rug it was helpful to talk about it and how it manifested itself in my mental health challenges. It was about developing coping mechanisms to stop my negative thinking patterns and the cyclical nature of depression. I learned how I can try to stop it as early as possible so that I can cope better and succeed in school and have lasting friendships.

What changed during counselling?

The biggest thing was resilience, that’s something that I have only because I acknowledged everything that happened and figured out how to cope with that. Just by finding someone non-judgemental and objective to speak to and give me some perspective was helpful. Finding somebody who could help me figure out how I can manage things better was life-changing.  I graduated when I was 21 and I didn't seek counselling again until a year ago. At that time I was experiencing a lot of grief as a result of a close friend’s suicide and I continue to see a counsellor now once every 3 weeks.

Let's talk about your brother, he was struggling with mental health when he was young as well. Were there any signs until the suicide attempt?

Well being the youngest girl I've watched all my brothers grow up around my dad and I noticed how heavily his drinking influenced them. He would actually become physically abusive with them. I would see them upset and it would completely break my heart. My brother being the youngest was mildly bullied by my older brothers. He was just a different child, I could see how heavily everything around him influenced him. My father and him are quite similar so I could tell that everything my father was doing especially his drinking was impacting this particular brother more than anybody else. Maybe there was a genetic component. Perhaps my father's drinking was the result of unresolved, undiagnosed mental illnesses that maybe he passed down to this particular brother. Maybe my father just influenced his mental health so heavily in a way that made him experience depression really intensely.

Did he communicated these feelings to you? Did he have someone to talk to?

He doesn't really have a huge support system. He doesn't let himself open up to people very much in a any real way. Our relationship with me has been rocky for sure, although we've been on good terms for quite awhile which is great.

How do we change the way we look at support so that he feels comfortable going to see someone? Do you think it's related to being a male ?

Well I know he doesn't ever want to spend the money. He was paying upwards of $160 for counselling with this one particular therapist. When he doesn't see immediate results he doesn't think it's worth it and stops going. Some of his friends are compassionate but I think that overall we're way too hard on men in general in our society. I don't think we're compassionate enough with them or encourage them with an empathetic dialogue early in life.  He has a business so there's that fear of jeopardizing your own success or your own business when you disclose any personal issues.

You mention money and also anonymity so do you think a service like TranQool could be beneficial for people who need preventative measures?

Yeah 100%. I think for men especially your service is incredibly valuable. The friend I lost, who died by suicide, was a 27 year old male and again I think he put pressure on himself to succeed. He couldn't handle having that failure (in his eyes). That's probably another barrier for my brother in particular, he just wants to succeed so badly that he gets frustrated with barriers. I think a lot of people see mental health challenges as a barrier, but they don't acknowledge how to get through it.

Natalie’s conversation with us was very thoughtful and she made sure to use the right terms and terminologies when it came to talking about mental health. Using “ died by suicide” instead of “committed suicide” was one of them. Acknowledging our life’s challenges and being open to hearing people’s stories without judgement is what she advocates for and invites us all to be open minded listeners. In order to break down the stigma we need to take our own responsibility to learn and increase our understanding. Many people can, with the best of intentions, say things that are more hurtful than encouraging. Phrases like "It's not that bad", "You'll be fine", or "You'll get over it" still stigmatize people. We all have our own responsibility to take the time to learn.

What's the one thing you can take away from your experiences with depression?

I guess that life goes on. I just have more faith in my ability and my capacity as an individual to handle things that come out of these struggles because I know that I'm going to get through it. Within the first year of my close friend dying by suicide I had an incredibly difficult time. One symptom of the trauma and anxiety from his passing was that I was convinced that everyone around me was going to die. Only because I've never had anyone die so unexpectedly or in such a devastating and shocking way. It's still a shock to this day.

You mention resilience and that you are stronger, would you say you are more empathetic too?

Yeah... I think I'm a really strong individual and I'm better at knowing how to support those around me. I can relate to a lot of people and can be more genuine in conversations because I know what it's like to face mental health challenges. I know the horrible effect that not talking about these experiences can have on individuals. It's made me a more empathetic person because you never know what anyone else is going through at any given time. Also, I think that people really grow and evolve over time. My father for example is now 10 months sober and I think this goes to show that mental health is fluid and evolving.

TranQool is a mental health platform that connects you to a registered therapist via a secure video call. Try therapy from the comfort of your home.