By Kyla Dewar, Erica Lenti and Tania Peralta
Three smart, resilient young women, each of whom has struggled with anxiety and depression, and their timely idea to help others like themselves.
Each year, 15–30 students in the magazine editing course at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism are put into groups of three, four or five. Their assignment: To create and develop a magazine concept and, if they wish, try to turn that concept into a real magazine that regularly serves its defined audience. This year saw an idea called HEADSPACE, aimed at young people with the hidden disabilities of depression, anxiety and other related mental health issues.
Since the mission of the Canadian Abilities Foundation is to convene a forum for the exchange of information to promote an inclusive society and provide inspiration and opportunities for people with disabilities, we thought our readers would like a brief preview of this magazine-in-the-making and to hear the memorable personal stories of the magazine’s honest, open and dedicated co-creators. Kyla Dewar, Erica Lenti and Tania Peralta are actively seeking advice, feedback and support from any individual or organization that recognizes the urgent need for a publication that can help shape, change and, just possibly, save young lives.
The following introduction is adapted from the trio’s concept issue.
In January 2014, the decision to create a prototype magazine about youth mental health was an easy one. The three of us—all third-year journalism students at Ryerson—shared a connection, pasts and presents filled with the struggle and the inevitable pain of facing a mental illness. We knew the hardships of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation; we’d all experienced them.
We also knew the harsh reality of mental illness and journalism: There was little being done. Personal stories of suffering and success are usually relegated to the depths of the internet, and features about pressing issues of mental health are carefully tiptoed around by editors. Few, it seems, want to talk.
But we needed to talk and act. After all, one in every 10 Canadian youth is affected by mental illness.
The numbers are astounding: With 4.3 million youth living in Canada today, that means at least 430,000 are suffering from some form of mental illness. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 and 19 years. Yet only one in every five young people dealing with a mental illness will receive the help they need.
The result of our deliberations is HEADSPACE: a prototype for a not-for-profit, national and quarterly magazine that creates visibility for the Canadian youth mental health community by reporting on current issues affecting young people dealing with mental illness. The goal: To engage and entice more youth to confront mental illness and reduce its negative effects.
Throughout the pages of HEADSPACE, readers will find helpful tips and resources, plus more about the editors’ lives and why we are so passionate about turning what began as a university project into reality— a place where youth, like us, can safely share their stories and break through the barriers that traditional media place on mental illness today.
Kyla, Erica and Tania can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org
When I was younger, I never really understood the meaning behind the term “mental illness.” I knew what it was like to be sad and to feel lonely, and I knew what other people defined as crazy, but I was never able to grasp the concept of what it actually meant to be mentally ill.
It was an enigma—something not quite tangible—that never quite added up, no matter how I looked at it. There are so many ways in which mental illness can take effect that I had no idea I was experiencing it until it was nearly too late.
Growing up, I was ridiculed for my appearance and personality. I was one of those kids that never quite fit in anywhere because I was just a little too different from everybody else. My peers broke me down bit by bit every day, and when I lost one of my friends to an unforeseen illness I lost my way entirely. Losing her created the catalyst for my battle with depression.
My defining moment
When I was 16 years old, I had what I refer to as my defining moment: The day I chose to fight back and seek help.
On that night, I had been fighting with my parents. But when it was over and they went to bed, something didn’t feel right. Something inside me broke and it was as if all of the things I’d pushed aside, all the feelings and darkness I’d been trying to hold at bay, came rushing out and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
My heart felt as if it was beating out of my chest and I couldn’t stop pacing. My mind wouldn’t quiet and my entire body was numb. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop the dark thoughts from taking over.
That night, I did something I’m not proud of: I tried to take my own life. Downing half a bottle of pills and grabbing a knife from the kitchen, I cut my wrist and felt instant relief. The noise in my head dulled and I had a moment of clarity: Everything was going to be over soon.
But that clarity brought about a different set of thoughts than originally intended. I started thinking about what the people around me would do if I were gone, and I realized that I wasn’t done living. I forced myself to throw up and bandaged my wrist, and the very next day I told my parents that I needed help.
It was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do, but confessing that I had a problem made it so much easier to fight my way to the place I wanted to be.
A brave face
It took a little time for my family to come to terms with what I was going through. They were supportive and did everything in their power to set me up with someone to talk to, but I knew it was something they never saw coming. Every time we talked about it they would always tell me, “We never knew. You always seemed so happy.”
Part of the way I coped with all the turmoil in my life was by putting on a brave face. I masked my true emotions behind an upbeat personality and forced myself to remain positive while I was around other people. It was only when I was by myself that I took down my guard and let my emotions run their course.
Through a local agency, I was able to retool my way of thinking and create a more positive outlook on life using cognitive behavioural therapy. I got down to the base of what was causing my issues and found out how to cope with what I’d been through.
At 17, I was diagnosed with severe clinical depression and started taking medication to help me toward my recovery. Being diagnosed was one of the best things that could have happened to me because I learned that I wasn’t crazy—I was just struggling, like so many other people out there.
What is mental illness?
At this point in my life, I still don’t really know what mental illness is, but I find myself being completely okay with that. It’s not something that can be simplified into a definition, encompassing all of its aspects in a few short sentences. Mental illness means something different to every person. To me, mental illness is a representation of all the struggles in my life and the journey I have taken to move on from my past.
Now, at 20 years old, I can honestly say that I have never felt stronger, healthier or happier. And it’s all because I had the courage to reach out and seek help.
I was 17 years old the first time I thought about taking my own life. I stood at a Toronto subway station by the edge of the platform, taking no precautions to stand behind the yellow line. I waited as a train rushed by me, then another and another. I felt stuck, as if my feet were cemented into the ground.
I didn’t know what the feeling meant. Mental illness was never a topic of discussion, nor something a teenager like me—who was supposed to be happy—should experience.
My friends and I always joked about suicide. We created a “suicide pact” under the assumption that our coursework was swallowing us whole. None of us was ever serious but behind my laughter, behind the offhand remarks that, “Gosh, if this workload doesn’t lighten up I’m totally going to commit,” I felt a pain growing inside of me—one that urged me to take a step toward the train and hop down onto track level.
I was afraid to tell anyone how I felt—the stigma, I thought, would break my mother’s heart, drive my few friends away from me and send me kicking and screaming into an asylum. Instead, I dealt with it alone.
The feelings first rushed in during 10th grade. Pushed out of the closet by friends, I was forced to face the significant challenge of being a lesbian in a Catholic high school. On my 16th birthday my locker was defaced, the word “DYKE” scribbled on it with a Sharpie. Classmates later nicknamed me “Dykerica” and “Mr. Lenti.” The taunts followed me to university, where I put on a happy façade: I pretended I was the Happiest Gay Alive, though I hyperventilated every day before class in fear of being bullied yet again.
At 17, I was diagnosed with an incurable chronic illness that doubled my already high anxiety. It left me unable to go out, to function like the rest of my peers. I felt isolated and broken.
By the end of my first year of university, the suicidal thoughts had multiplied: I’ll never live a happy life if I’m always sad, sick and anxious. I might as well do the world a favour and kill myself.
It was then that I realized, after years of suffering, I needed help. I couldn’t do it alone anymore.
A journey to help
The journey to that help began in the Centre for Student Development and Counselling at Ryerson in 2013. Uplifting ’80s ballads played in the waiting room while I filled out an assessment form: Yes, I’ve considered harming myself. Yes, I want to die. My assessment led to a formal relationship with a school-issued psychologist. Our meetings remained a secret to my friends and family.
Counselling sessions took place every other week for an hour, during which I learned how to manage my anxiety and depression. Coping mechanisms, such as charting the real versus imagined threats of situations that caused my anxiety, served as reminders that my suffering was only temporary. In a note on my phone, I listed the activities that calm me during a panic attack: Listening to my iPod and drowning out the world; rehearsing things I want to say before I say them; taking a walk through a tree-canopied neighbourhood; and breathing deeply.
My counsellor encouraged me to document the experiences that set off my anxiety or suicidal ideation, and to rate their intensity. As the sessions went on and as I actually applied the coping techniques I learned, the intensity of each experience dropped. In preparation for my last session, the counsellor asked me to plot the average intensity ratings from each week onto a line graph. As I plotted, I watched the line steadily head downward.
I was able to see my progress.
Opening up to family
The day after my final session, I told my mother about my counselling. I feared she would be furious that I’d kept such an important part of my life from her. But when I handed her the chart and showed her how well I’d done, she cried, held me and told me she loved me.
Her response encouraged me to talk. I prepared a zine—a small, handmade, photocopied storybook—that documented my journey from subway tracks to line graphs. I now sell it online and at fairs across the city, and people tell me my story is inspirational. “This half-sized zine will make good company for train rides and bus trips,” wrote Chris Landry for Broken Pencil magazine.
Landry’s review reminds me that, after all, it was at the train station where my thoughts of suicide first arose. Years of suffering later, I realize I’ve come full circle—my story of catharsis is bringing others back to the place where I thought I’d end it all.
Iwas only a few months old when my mother left my two older siblings and me in Honduras. She went to the USA, where my father was waiting. From what I know, the plan was they would find a suitable city to seek refuge. The poverty and lack of dream-achieving opportunities meant they felt that Honduras was no place to raise a family. The plan was to eventually be reunited in a safe city with a stable government.
The first concept I understood in life was that Honduras was not a safe place. Honduras was so unsafe that my parents left. What I never understood as a child, and still have a hard time understanding, is that if Honduras was so unsafe, how could they possibly have left us behind? I always had so many questions and all of those questions brought on so many emotions that I ended up being a child who was always crying about one thing or another.
The second concept I understood was that I couldn’t ask questions and, more importantly, I couldn’t react to the emotions that those questions brought. My siblings and I were brought up in a household shaped by a culture that didn’t understand the emotions that would be labelled “trauma” or “anxiety” in countries like Canada.
Reunion and refuge
It took five years for us to be reunited with our parents. I remember standing in the parking lot of Vancouver Airport while my sister Sara, who was old enough to remember everything, cried in my parents’ arms. I remember my brother Roque asking a million questions. But what I remember most was my inability to cry for the same reasons they did; I cried because I had so many emotions inside of me that I didn’t understand and I was scared to voice them for fear of being considered ungrateful.
All the emotions I felt in that parking lot were eventually glazed over by all the wonderful things Canada offered. My life appeared to be so perfect that I felt it would be wrong to revisit those emotions and understand why I had ever felt them.
Being a refugee in a country like Canada and being raised in a Christian household, talking about the ugly things that had happened within our family was just not allowed. When I was applying for university, I tried to write a personal essay that described my family’s story as refugees. My mother was offended. To her, it was a sign of disrespect to make her revisit things that brought back bad memories. To me, talking about it would have made sense of so many of the thoughts that kept me up at night as a child.
Suppressing unwelcome thoughts
I somehow managed to hide all those emotions—and any other emotions—for several years, but they all came back to me during my third year at Ryerson. Everything made me cry. Any event or difficulty had the power to keep me up at night if I allowed it.
I was supposed to successfully complete nine classes in order to graduate “on time,” but I barely passed three. I became consumed by all the challenges I was supposed to be able to handle: I needed to make it to class, work 40 hours a week to make rent, do my homework and maybe even maintain a healthy relationship with friends. I failed at all those things.
I couldn’t tell my parents because they wouldn’t understand. I couldn’t tell my friends because I didn’t want to scare anyone. I couldn’t tell my teachers because I was already a disappointing student. I was scared and alone.
I didn’t start thinking about mental health in a different way until I was talking about it daily with Erica and Kyla as we shaped the HEADSPACE prototype. I didn’t come to terms with the emotions I had felt during my childhood until I read about and studied trauma. I didn’t face my anxiety until I accepted that not everyone can do all the things that were expected of them.
Most importantly, I didn’t get better until I recognized my trauma and anxiety as forms of mental illness. The moment I recognized all my memories from my childhood as valid reasons for the emotions I had sheltered, and recognized my anxiety as the reason why I couldn’t get anything done, I got better.
I started paying attention to the things that set off my emotions. I started reading other people’s stories and, most significantly, I stopped being afraid to talk about how I felt.
Mental Health Resources
A region-by-region sampling of places to contact when life just seems too tough
Canadian Mental Health Association
Kids Help Phone
1 (800) 668-6868
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH)
Coast Mental Health
1 (877) 602-6278
1 (866) 870-7847
Access Mental Health
1 (877) 303-2642
Manitoba Mental Health Education Resource Centre
Children’s Mental Health Ontario
1 (888) 234-7054
Mental Health Works
Centre for Mental Health Services
1 (800) 341-6323
1 (866) 531-2600
1 (877) 303-0264
Bipolar Disorder Support Association
Mental Health Services
of Nova Scotia
1 (800) 465-2601
Mental Health and
Prince Edward Island
Health PEI Children’s
Family Service PEI
Mental Health and
1 (800) 661-0408
1 (800) 265-3333