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It’s Okay Not to be Okay: Continuing the Conversation on Mental Health

by Doreen Khamo MSW, RSW; RWCS Individual & Family Support Program

“It’s okay not to be okay.”

"It's okay not to be okay" - Cloud photo by  Laura Vinck  on  Unsplash

"It's okay not to be okay" - Cloud photo by Laura Vinck on Unsplash

A simple statement yet one of the most reassuring and impactful pieces of advice ever given to me.

It happened during a time in my life when I was experiencing many challenges and just couldn’t snap out of it. I wasn’t feeling okay and on top of everything I was going through, I began feeling down on myself and guilty for the mere fact that I wasn’t feeling okay - like that makes any sense – but true story! 

Of course this conflicting thought-process led me to a never-ending cycle of trying to convince my not-so-okay self to just be “okay”: “Why can’t I just be happy?” “Just show up and smile!” “Think positive and things will get better.”  But truth is things were not getting better.  And it seems that the more I pushed myself into practicing the above-noted mantras of positive-ness, the further away from positivity, or feeling happy, I was.  I was tired of trying to forcibly push back my authentic feelings only to make room for fabricated happiness.  

And that’s when it happened.  

I was confused and tired of mismanaging my emotion-full world when a dear friend of mine said the six-word sentence that would change the way I felt about feeling forever: “It’s-okay-not-to-be-okay.”

As if I was waiting my whole life for permission to just feel my feelings without feeling guilty, ashamed or less-than.

I admit that I have had many “a-ha” moments in my life, and sure enough this was one of those times.  Within seconds of hearing those words, I felt instant relief.  As if I was waiting my whole life for permission to just feel my feelings without feeling guilty, ashamed or less-than.

It was then that I came to the realization that society puts so much pressure on us to be positive and happy all the time, leaving us to constantly compare ourselves and situations to others.  How many times have you been going through something only to be told “You should be happy and grateful because there are others who have it way worse,” or my favourite one (enter sarcastic emoji here) is “pull yourself up by the bootstraps and get going.”  Well as many of you may already know, not all of us have bootstraps, or wear boots for that matter.  

And when it comes to others having it way worse – well, if you really think about it, there will always be someone out there who has it way worse.  So does that mean we should never fully feel our not-so-okay feelings ever again? How scary!

Get ready because I’m about to drop some serious truth here: Just because we are feeling how we are feeling does not cancel out someone else’s feelings, or vice versa.  

Let me repeat that because it deserves an encore:

Just because you are focusing on yourself and embracing the emotions you are feeling does not CANCEL out someone else’s.  We can ALL have circumstances that make us feel not okay sometimes….and that’s okay!

This does NOT mean:

  • We are cruel
  • That we only care about ourselves and no one else (note: self-care is highly recommended!)
  • That we think our feelings and problems are the only feelings and problems in the whole wide world

It simply means that our circumstances, and feelings as a result of, are valid and they are real to us and we are allowed to feel them. Period.

Society puts so much pressure on us to interrupt our not-so-happy feelings, rather than just be with our emotions and try to understand why we are feeling the way we are feeling, how our bodies are responding to these feelings, and so on. We don't always have to have it put together. And we definitely need to disrupt the feelings of guilt and shame that we so often associate with feeling or being something or someone other than what the larger society expects us to feel or be. 

...being present with our emotions, regardless of what those emotions are, is just as important - in fact, it’s necessary.

Understanding that our sadder emotions are just a part of who we are as our happier emotions, and the better we become at embracing all our emotions, the closer we are to self-discovery, self-awareness and self-growth.  And in order to do that, we need to unlearn the unhealthy societal expectations of suppressing our unhappy feelings in order to be optimistic all the time. Don’t get me wrong, optimism is a beautiful thing and is important in life, but being present with our emotions, regardless of what those emotions are, is just as important, in fact it’s necessary. Even better, it’s empowering!

Here are a couple of my other favourite “It’s okay” affirmations for the day:

Okay_NYCH Blog.gif

It's okay...
…to feel sad
…to feel angry
…to take a break
…to cry
…to say no
…to cancel plans
…to eat the food you love
…to not want to socialize
…to sleep
…to take time out for yourself
...to ask for help when you need it
…to cut ties off with people who drain your energy
…to not want to talk about "it"
…to not answer calls or texts right away
…to not have it all figured out
…and so much more! The list could (and should) go on and on!  

Have any of your own? Jot them down (on paper or mentally) daily, or whenever you want, or don’t – it’s totally up to you! Personally, I find it as a helpful reminder that it’s okay to…just be.

And most importantly, should you find yourself not feeling okay for longer periods of time, if you are having a crisis, or if you just want someone to talk to, know that you are never alone and support is always available.  Here are a few places that you can call:

  • Mental Health Helpline: 1-866-531-2600 (open 24 hrs)
  • Toronto Distress Centres: 416-408-4357 (open 24 hrs)
  • Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (open 24 hrs)
  • Gerstein Centre: 416-929-5200 (open 24hrs)
  • Spectra Helpline (Contact Centre Telecare Peel): 905-459-7777 (open 24hrs)
  • Assaulted Women’s Helpline: 416-863-0511 or toll free 1-866-863-0511 (open 24hrs)
  • Distress Centre Peel: 905-278-7208 (open 24hrs)

Please Note: If it is an emergency, always call 9-1-1

For more information on Mental Health, you can also visit:

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
www.camh.ca

Canadian Mental Health Association
https://toronto.cmha.ca/

If you have any questions or require additional information, please feel free to contact me at:

Doreen Khamo MSW, RSW
RWCS Individual & Family Support Program
Tel. 416-784-0920 Ext. 3233
Email: dkhamo@nych.ca
 

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A Decade

by Bonnie Hunter, Director of Talent & Innovation at North York Community House

It’s been ten years since I first started dealing with depression which, as I write this, seems like some kind of sentence handed down to me for past wrongs. Ten years is a long time to spend fighting this fight, and I have to admit, I haven’t always felt up to the task. On the positive side, depression no longer comes on like a sneak attack, scaring me out of my ‘normal’ – I’ve come to accept that this is a chronic condition that I’ll likely be dealing with, on and off, for the rest of my life. Yet this realization doesn’t give me the energy and motivation I need to claw my way out of the crater every time.

I remember at first being convinced I was the only one dealing with this...

At the same time, I’ve found hope in the way mental illness has become a huge topic for public discourse, even if legislation and access to treatment haven’t kept pace. I remember at first being convinced I was the only one dealing with this, not knowing exactly what ‘this’ was, only to find out that close friends and relatives were in it with me – we just didn’t talk about it. So we’ve come a long way, even since 2006. I just hope that all the publicity, all the ‘coming out’ of celebrities who’ve faced their own struggles, doesn’t create a sense that this is now a problem solved because it has its own hashtag. 

I worry that the increased awareness of the stats – that 20% of Canadians will experience mental illness in their lifetime, that 8% of us will deal with major depression, and so on – will lead those more fortunate to believe they totally get it. And so ‘it’ will start to feel like no big deal, when in reality every single one of us lives with our own special brand of pain and fear and isolation.

But then I remember that while the majority will not have to go through any of this personally, they are likely to be related to, a colleague of, or in love with someone who will. And they will have a front row seat to their loved one’s journey through it, while trying to figure out how to listen, how to be supportive, how to stay, and how to not make it worse. (Those first three, by the way, almost guarantee avoiding the fourth.)

Thank you for accepting that this is part of who I am...
BONNIE

BONNIE

So we’re really all in this together, and I’m so grateful for the brave souls in my life who have the courage to ask hard questions and keep showing up when I can’t see my way out. I keep thinking that someday you’ll stop returning my calls but you never do. Thank you for accepting that this is part of who I am, and for helping me to accept it as well. Your love and bossiness and humour are what will get me through the next five minutes, and the next week, and the next decade.

Chances are you know someone dealing with some kind of mental health issue. You may not have heard from them in a while, and might think they don’t want to talk to you. For people dealing with serious depression, anxiety or other mental illness it can be extremely difficult to reach out and ask for help, even to those closest to us. You may be hesitant to reach out to them because you feel awkward and don’t know what to say. Please, give them a call or send them a text anyway – letting someone know you care is never the wrong move.

If you or someone you know is in distress right now, call 911, or contact Toronto’s 24-hour crisis support line at 416 408-4357.

For more information on mental illness and available support services, visit:

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
Canadian Mental Health Association
Mood Disorders Association of Ontario


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Sometimes it’s not just the weather…

by Bonnie Hunter, Director of Human Resources

It seems like a lot of people have been suffering recently – I’ve heard friends, coworkers and strangers on the subway describe everything from a major case of the ‘blahs’ to serious periods of depression. It’s not unusual to feel cranky this time of year – the holidays are a distant memory, spring seems too far away, and we’re sick of piling on all the coats and scarves and boots every day just to brave the elements.

For some, there are relatively quick fixes – a good vitamin D supplement, the ever more popular Netflix binge, or even (for those who can afford to do so), a week away to somewhere warm and sunny. Then there are the hearty types among you who choose to embrace all that winter offers – ‘If you can’t beat it, join it!’ you cry out as you courageously leap on your toboggan and head down the hill for the eleventh time.

And then there are those for whom no amount of sun, vitamins or snowball fights can keep our moods from getting, and staying, dark. Even if they haven’t ‘officially’ told you there’s a problem, it’s that person you know whose mood doesn’t seem to lift, regardless of the weather…it could be a senior, a newcomer, or just someone who seems to be struggling.

So I’d like to offer some observations and suggestions to those of you who want to help that person, but don’t know what to do. First, let me start with a disclaimer – I am not a doctor, psychiatrist, psychologist, or other ‘ist’, and I advise you not to try to be either. (Unless you actually are, in which case well done!) It’s tempting to try to ‘fix’ or cure the people we love, but your most important role is likely to provide stable, consistent support, and encouragement in finding professional help.

During my toughest times, the incredible people in my life don’t cure my depression, but they do help to keep me from sinking further. Knowing they’re there and concerned occasionally takes me out of my head, even when I’m not able to thank them, or fully show my gratitude. It’s those moments when I realize just how hard it is for them, too.

And so it is with appreciation for those of you who love us through the dark days that I offer some honest advice that comes from my own experiences. Here goes…

1. Don’t feel you have to have ‘the answer’, or that you can fix us
In fact, assume you don’t and can’t. Hearing people say, ‘You just need a day off’, or ‘I’ve got a great joke that’ll cheer you up!’, or ‘No wonder you’re feeling blue with this weather’, can sometimes make me feel like no one really understands what I’m going through. I would much rather have someone just take my hand and grit through the awkward silence. I have a friend who will just gently rub my back to let me know she’s there, and I find that really soothing.

Parker Palmer is an author, educator, and incredibly wise man who has had his own journey with depression (my two favourite Parker Palmer books are A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. If you’re not up to reading, you can find some clips of his talks on youtube). He talks about how people’s well-meaning attempts to cheer him up often made him feel worse because he either couldn’t believe what they were saying, or couldn’t do anything about it anyway. He also suggests that when we make these attempts to ‘help’, we are essentially trying to let ourselves off the hook…at least we tried. It is much harder, he observes, to just walk with someone, to be with them while they’re in pain. But that’s often what we really need.

2. Just be there, and keep being there…and listen
I know this isn’t easy – to watch someone close to you suffer, and not try to make it better. It can mean fighting every impulse in your body to help. I do it myself when someone I love is in distress – it’s a natural instinct to want things to be better.

But here’s the thing…we – at least some of us – pretty much know you can’t fix us; we also know you want to. What we really need is for you to see us where we are – to really hear us and acknowledge the truth we’re telling you, even if it’s disturbing – without necessarily trying to solve the problem. I’m using bold so this is an important bit here…I’m not talking about someone who is in immediate danger of harming themselves or you or someone else – there are times when you may feel you have to intervene and call for help. I’m just saying that for those of us who function (to some degree) with depression or other mental illness on a day-to-day basis, we all experience, express and confront it differently. We need to you realize that, and hear what we tell you.

3. It’s important to ask us how we feel and tell us how you feel
By all means, tell us it’s hard for you to see us in pain, tell us you love us and you wish you could kick its ass. Because whether we can show it or not, the fact that you’re sticking with us through all this is a good thing.  If you’re not sure what to do or say, ask us what you can do to help. Tell us when you notice something has changed. Confront us gently and honestly if you’re worried things are getting worse, or if we say or do something that scares you.

4. But please, please, please – don’t tell us it’s just the weather.

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