What do Buzz Aldrin, Abraham Lincoln, Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath and Amadeus Mozart all have in common?
Each of them has battled depression.
The debilitating illness can affect anyone. People of every age and from every social, economic, cultural and religious group get depressed. In fact, at any given time, almost three million Canadians have depression; though less than one-third seek help.
Understanding that depression is an illness that affects many people helps break down the stigma surrounding the disorder. It may also help those living with the disease speak more freely about their experience and discover new sources of support and understanding.
Ryan Goodyear says his experience with mental illness has been long and arduous.
The 22-year-old second-year journalism student has been dealing with depression for nearly 10 years.
“Looking back on it now, I can basically pinpoint my depression starting around 13 years old, a few months after starting Grade 7 in middle school,” he says.
“My thoughts were always towards the darker side, but that’s when I started contemplating life and death, the meaning of things and, a lot of the time, suicide.”
He says he doesn’t know why he had suicidal thoughts at such a young age. “I just knew I was different; that my thought process and outlook on life was different.”
By the end of middle school he had started self-harming in the form of cutting, keeping it hidden from all but two people at the time. He says growing up and going through high school didn’t improve matters. “Instead, every year my depression got worse and worse and every year I found a new self-destructive vice to cling to.”
“Between the end of Grade 7 and the beginning of Grade 10, I self-harmed continually,” says Goodyear, adding the need to cut felt like an addiction. “I had a little tin filled with everything I needed, in a way I felt like a junkie. Here I was with all this paraphernalia in a little tin that I would hide in my room and have to sneak off to use.”
He says by the end of high school his moods were very low. He made two suicide attempts over those four years and began smoking marijuana to manage his depression and anxiety.
“I credit this (smoking pot) with finally allowing me to break away from my self-harming habits. Marijuana is something I have used continually since then, and it’s one of the few things that has been able to manage my extreme depression and anxiety.”
Goodyear says he has been dealing with depression on an almost daily basis for years.
“It’s ruined a lot of things in my life, taken a lot from me and kept me from partaking in a lot of my life. It’s put rifts between me and people important to me and sucked all joy out of me.
“Almost every day I would wake up and think, is today the day I end it? Waking up every day with the thought of suicide or having to deal with those thoughts throughout the day is exhausting, horrifying and confusing and not something I would wish upon anyone. I had these thoughts just about everyday until recently.”
Goodyear says there is a silver lining to his story.
“About two and a half months ago, I finally mustered up the courage to go talk to my family doctor,” he says, adding he had always fought against taking pills for his depression and anxiety before. “Yet, I have to say that after some trial and error I am starting to feel a little better and things don’t seem as dark and impossible anymore.”
Despite how difficult living with depression can be, Goodyear says he believes there is a bit of a positive side to mental illness.
“Most people I have met with a mental illness have been independent, free thinking individuals.”
He thinks that some people see the injustices and contradictions inherent in life and they can’t help but have it bring them down.
“These are the people who are able to break free from the pack and generally carve out a more interesting, fulfilling life path than those who are stuck in ‘groupthink’ and go through the waves of life without questioning anything. Unfortunately, sometimes the individual is overcome by their own thoughts and take their own lives.”
Goodyear says it’s important to get help – whether it is a friend, a family member or a trained professional. Many people are unaware there are free helplines for just this purpose.
Community Torchlight offers free telephone support, referral and crisis assistance to individuals living within Guelph, Wellington County, Orangeville and Dufferin County. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it has trained staff and volunteers who answer the calls, which are confidential.
The Distress Centre provides confidential listening and support, crisis response and intervention for anyone in Waterloo Region. Its telephone lines operate 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year and are answered by trained volunteers and staff. All calls are confidential.
A volunteer at the agency says the types of calls they receive are varied. “They can range from relationship problems to loneliness, grief, depression and suicidal thoughts to name a few.”
The centre operates a general line offering supportive and confidential listening (519-745-1166), a Youth Line (519-745-9909), the EARS Line (519-570-3277) dedicated to male victims of sexual assault, and the Mental Health and Addictions Data Base Line (519-744-5594) – which refers callers to resources, individuals and organizations that are involved in serving people with mental health concerns.
Goodyear says the worst thing you can do is keep all those negative thoughts to yourself.
“I know, because I have been doing it for eight years, and it does no good. If you have a pet, talk to it. They will love you unconditionally and are always there to listen. Get involved with art, anything where you can express yourself and vent.”
He says he feels it’s important to share his story so other people know they are not alone. “Other people need to know that they aren’t crazy, that other people have had these thoughts and urges and have lived inside their heads. If others knew how many people around them are struggling with the same things, we might not feel so lonely.”
Conestoga College arts and science student Gregory Douglas recently gave a speech about his experience living with depression to a group of master’s students in the social work program at Wilfrid Laurier University.
The 20-year-old snowboard instructor says sharing his story with others is helping him to work through it and heal.
Over six months ago, his roommate at Laurier died by suicide. Douglas says he spent every day after that for the next six months in a depressed haze. “I would blame myself for not doing more to save him,” he says. “Some days I couldn’t leave my bed or shower.”
“Some days I would wake up and life just didn’t seem worth living; I forgot everything that made me happy.” He says even though he received many messages of support from friends and family, he never felt so alone in his life.
He began to see a counsellor and says that has helped him greatly. “The counsellor helped me find a path and connected me to groups of people who had dealt with suicide.”
Douglas says it wasn’t until early January that he finally began to feel the fog of depression lifting. “I felt strong for the first time in months and it actually felt odd.”
“Now that I’m feeling better I’m left to pick up the pieces of myself from the last six months. I am currently signed up to volunteer with the Waterloo Suicide Prevention Council and in talks with people who share the same goals as me to remove the stigma around mental illness.”
Douglas says being depressed isn’t a weakness, that to be at battle with yourself is the hardest thing you can do. He adds that many strong, inspiring people have been diagnosed with major depression, such as the second man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin.
He says sharing his story is the best thing he can do for himself.
During Bell’s Let’s Talk Day, Douglas shared his story with all of his friends on Facebook.
“I wrote a two page note on Facebook and shared it with everyone and I got a lot of messages back. That helped a lot.” He says he’s even gotten messages from old friends in high school who he hasn’t seen in four years asking if they can talk to him about their own struggles with mental illness.
Douglas says he’d been questioning his decision to share his story when TSN aired the documentary Talk to Me as part of Let’s Talk Day. The film tells the story behind the James Peek Memorial Classic – an annual golf tournament held in honour of Peek, who suffered from depression and took his own life at 17 years of age.
“I saw that and thought, well, I have to now. That just pushed me to share it because it made me see how important it was.”