By LINDSAY TESSIER
This is the first of a four-part series on the faces of mental health.
Allanah Pinhorn is urging me to look at the shadows, at the way the light is streaming through the trees and casting shadows across the fresh snow.
“Look at the shadows coming off those trees,” she says. “No, seriously, look at it! It’s gorgeous.”
Pinhorn is a fellow second-year journalism student at Conestoga College. I know her as a coffee-addict, a talented writer and a friend who can leave me breathless with laughter. She also happens to have depression.
The 26-year-old is bluntly open about her experience with mental illness.
“I think it’s important to share my story,” she says. “I think it’s important for people to see the face of depression and to know that they aren’t alone. Also, to see that it does get better.”
Pinhorn describes her depression as “a heavy being sitting on your shoulders and a lead weight in your stomach.”
“It feels like you’re the only person to ever feel so low, so dejected. Like the world is grey and colourless, and moving slowly, and you have no idea why or how to get it back to normal.”
She’s not alone in feeling this way. According to Health Canada, one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. The remaining four will have a friend, family member or colleague who will.
Young adults are particularly at-risk. It is estimated that 10 to 20 per cent of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder. Despite the numbers, only one-third of those who need mental health services in Canada actually receive them.
The typical age of onset for many disorders is 18 to 24, meaning young people often have their first encounter with mental illness while pursuing post-secondary education.
There are a number of reasons why college and university is a stressful time for students, says Barbara Kraler, co-ordinator of Counselling Services.
Many students are living away from home for the first time – far from their familiar support system of family and friends. On top of that, colleges and universities are often demanding, costly, high-stress environments, which can trigger anxiety and depression.
As far as Pinhorn can remember, her battle with depression began in high school but worsened when she went away to Sheridan College for theatre studies.
“Seventeen is when it hit me really hard,” she says. “To the point where I had to drop out of college because I wasn’t going to my classes. I was very successful when I did go to class but I was just so depressed that I couldn’t get out of bed.”
She attributes some of her depression at that time to wrestling with issues of identity and sexuality.
“I think a lot of it was due to the fact that I didn’t know who I was at the time,” she says. “I was struggling with my sexuality and I didn’t really realize it. Once I realized it, I mean, I was still depressed but I was fine with that. I didn’t have a problem with coming out as a lesbian and realizing who I was, it was just trying to get there was a lot of the struggle.”
Pinhorn says that having a strong support system around her was incredibly helpful.
“I don’t know what I would have done without my family going through it.” Although she had a rocky relationship with her mom during her teens, the depression helped to heal that rift.
“We didn’t have a very good relationship then and ironically, because of it, we formed an incredibly strong relationship.”
Although she has a supportive network of family and friends now, many people she thought were her friends turned their backs on her in the midst of her depression.
She says that living through the worst of her depression was much scarier than any diagnosis.
“I was probably at the lowest place I’ve been and I had just tried to kill myself. I kind of realized at that point, what am I doing? I mean, I still didn’t really want to live but I didn’t want to die either.” She spent time in a hospital after the suicide attempt.
“That was a wake-up call, where I went, I don’t really belong here, and then I thought, well, maybe I do. I want to get help.”
She says the experience of being in hospital was scary but when the doctor told her she was depressed all she felt was relief.
“It was like a weight off my shoulders. I was like, it’s just me, I’m not crazy. A lot of this I can’t control. It wasn’t scary because finally there was a reason for it and there was hope. I don’t have to live like this forever. I can go back to who I was.”
After being officially diagnosed with depression at the age of 18, she was treated with antidepressants.
“Then everything was suddenly OK,” she says.
Pinhorn still takes medication, though she did go off it for a few years. “Then it (the depression) came back, but I recognized it and instead of fighting it I went, OK, time to go back on.”
She says it’s important to be able to recognize the symptoms of your illness and to not be ashamed to take medication if necessary.
“If I was diabetic I’d take insulin, so if I’m depressed I’m going to take whatever the little white pill is they give me.”
She hopes that someday mental health disorders will be treated the same as any other medical condition.
Pinhorn says there are still many misconceptions surrounding mental health issues.
“I think there’s still a huge social stigma against it that says if you have a mental illness you’re ‘crazy’ which is not the case. It’s just a medical condition that you need to manage. It’s unfortunate that it’s an invisible medical condition.
“We don’t look sick, so people don’t think we are.”
Many people still believe that mental illness is something you can simply “snap out of” or wear down with enough willpower. Pinhorn says that’s not the case.
“When you’re in that dark place, you can be doing the thing you absolutely love – and at that time it was the arts and theatre for me. I lived and breathed it. You can be doing the thing you absolutely love and still be miserable if your mental health is in a bad state. Sometimes you just need help.”
She says she wants other people struggling with mental illness to know that they aren’t alone.
“So many of those people are dealing with the same things you’re dealing with so don’t be ashamed of it. Also, that it gets better. No matter what, it gets better. You can be incredibly successful and happy after going through that. You can find a career, you can do well at school, you can find love, you can have a family and nothing is too dark to get through. Even if it seems like it is now, it never is.”
Pinhorn returns to the interplay of light and shadow outside the cafeteria window.
“Little things like that make you wonder how you could ever think that life wasn’t worth getting up for,” she says. “For me to be able to sit here almost 10 years later now and have a completely different outlook on life is just proof that it’s liveable. You can live with it. I still live with it every day.
“I probably always will.”