Can mental illness be an addiction?

Finding comfort in anxiety

Mental illness can be addictive. I know that is a loaded, very serious statement, but allow me to explain. Ever since I was a kid, I have struggled with generalized anxiety disorder. It usually manifested itself in very normal stressful situations and everyone figured it was just a part of growing up.

Though overtime, it worsened. In high school, I’d feel nauseous before hanging out with friends or I’d spend hours crying because I felt overwhelmed and overstimulated. I started to avoid going out, gaining a reputation for being “anti-social.” 

At the height of my anxiety I developed an intense fear of being murdered, which still lingers today. I spent nearly a year constantly looking over my shoulder and imagining different violent scenarios to see if I could plan a way to get out of them. 

I barely slept. I’d cry over every single assignment I’d submit because I knew I could barely manage to get it done in the first place. I didn’t go out unless it was to my best friend’s place where we’d just stay in. 

My mental health was at its lowest. The problem, though, was I didn’t want to change. 

I knew my fears were irrational. I knew I should’ve forced myself to try harder at school. I knew getting out of the house would make me feel better. But I had no interest in doing that. 

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the definition of addiction is “a compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behaviour, or activity having harmful physical, psychological, or social effects.”

Looking back, I’d say I was addicted to my anxiety. Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way saying that mental illness is addictive, or that this applies to every mental illness. However, in my experience, it did — and it’s come to my attention that I’m not the only one who has felt this way. 

I found comfort in my anxiety, I was so deep in it for so long that it became what I centred my life around. My anxiety felt like that childhood stuffed animal, the one you couldn’t sleep without as a kid. I saw no reason to change.

The prospect of trying to fight my way out of my worst episode, just to fall back into another potentially even worse episode, was terrifying. 

In an interview with CBC, psychiatrist Dr. Judson Brewer said that humans can become addicted to worry and anxiety, and just like any other addiction our brain can learn to crave the sensation of worry.

I am only comfortable enough in saying this because of those lovely, deep 3 a.m. talks with friends. Those conversations were part of what helped me realize I was not alone in this experience. 

That’s the good news: You’re not alone.

There are places you can turn to for help.

If you’re struggling, please consider reaching out to Concordia’s Counselling and Psychological services.

The road to happiness is paved with… self-help books?

Is the solution to mental wellness finally here, or is it just another fad?

In the 1980s, a psychological theory became all the rage in North America and started to be implemented in institutions across Canada and the United States. You might be familiar with it; it’s now known as the self-esteem movement.

It was based on The Psychology of Self-Esteem, a book originally published in 1969 by Nathaniel Branden, which essentially explains that the key to happiness and success is to work on building a positive self-image for everyone. As the literature on this topic grew, it caught the attention of Californian legislator John Vasconcellos, who loved the idea so much he started funding initiatives to make it a greater part of his state’s policies.

All of a sudden, schools were giving out participation medals by the handfuls and finding ways to compliment children no matter what. Educators found all sorts of ways of minimizing the concepts of “winner” and “loser” in the activities they organized.

And this went on into the 90s. Today, we know that that was complete nonsense; you can’t tell a kid they’re special and coddle them and expect them to continue breaking down barriers and outdoing themselves in everything they undertake. One day they will step into reality and realize that if everyone is unique, then that means no one is.

This is exactly what has happened as a result of this movement. We now have a generation of people who are struggling with mental health issues and broken expectations because they’ve been conditioned to life in a bubble and now have to live in a world that won’t be telling them they’re amazing and great all the time.

In turn, this has caused a societal fear of making mistakes and a culture that favours dishonesty over the possibility of hurting someone’s feelings.

But, at the time, this clearly seemed like a great idea. Everyone agreed: low self-esteem causes people to take less risks, to isolate themselves, to turn in subpar quality work because they don’t believe they can do better, and in general just kind of sucks.

On the other hand, high self-esteem gives many people a drive to become better, to chase their dreams;… the bottom line is, people who view themselves highly invite others to do the same.

The thing they forgot to mention in this movement, however, is that people need a reason to esteem themselves highly. Phenomenal self-perception paired with a terrible personality and a lack of competence is narcissism at best, and will set anyone up for failure.

The more we learn about psychology, the more we realize how little we know about the human brain. In 1973, psychologist David Rosenhan conducted a study where he sent fake patients to 12 psychiatric hospitals in the United States and told the admitting doctors they heard voices in their heads saying the words “empty,” “hollow,” and “thud” — but apart from that, they told the truth about everything else, including that none of them had a history of mental illness.

They were all admitted to psychiatric hospitals for up to almost eight weeks and all prescribed various medications.

Full disclosure, journalist Susannah Cahalan somewhat debunked this study in 2019. She found many inconsistencies in the story and suspects some of the pseudopatients were made up by Rosenhan.

But nonetheless, the moral of this study remains and has been retested many times thereafter: even highly trained doctors have trouble telling the difference between people who are mentally ill and those who aren’t.

Psychology gets inserted into popular culture all the time. In the 2010s, self-esteem was replaced by its distant cousins, self-care and self-help; by 2017, the global wellness industry was worth US$4.2 trillion.

And now, these ideas of ‘change your life by changing your mindset,’ ‘98 per cent of what you do is caused by your habits,’ and ‘you can do anything you set your mind to’ are seeing a huge surge. The new psychology trend is telling you to take control over your own life because no one’s going to do it for you.

So far, implementing these rules into my life has brought me nothing but positive results and psychological progress. But frankly, I don’t know if this could work for everyone. I don’t know if it’s realistic to tell people that they are responsible for their own success and failure, especially when we start factoring in things like systemic discrimination and wealth inequality around the world.

Could this be the next self-esteem movement? We don’t want to teach people that they can’t do anything and that they won’t be able to achieve their big dreams? Then again, there could be consequences to getting carried away by yet another idealistic method of fixing all of our problems and finally finding happiness.


Graphic by @the.beta.lab


The real reason behind gun violence in the U.S.

Blaming mental illness for shooting massacres is offensive and misleading

Blaming mental illness for gun violence is not okay, and I believe President Donald Trump is only causing more harm when he encourages the use of guns to supposedly prevent gun violence.

On Nov. 5, a gunman opened fire at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, reported The New York Times. The shooter was later found dead in his car and identified by authorities as Devin Patrick Kelley. He killed 26 people.
Trump, who was in Japan at the time, blamed the shooting on mental illness. He called the tragedy “a mental health problem at the highest level” and described the shooter as a “very deranged individual,” according to The New York Times. I believe Trump is using mental illness as a scapegoat for acts of violence. He also specified that “this isn’t a guns situation,” according to the same source. This further proves his incompetence as president.

In my opinion, Trump is unable to tackle this nationwide issue in an objective fashion. He is turning away from the real issue destroying the lives of many Americans each year. According to the not-for-profit corporation Gun Violence Archive, approximately 13,286 people were killed in the United States by firearms in 2015.

Not only is blaming gun violence on mental illness largely false, it is also offensive and misleading. Doing so increases the stigma around mental illness and perpetuates the incorrect assumption that mentally ill people are violent. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the majority of people with mental illness are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Only three to five per cent of violent acts in the United States can be attributed to individuals with serious mental illness, according to the same source.

Not only does Trump fail to assign fault where it is due, I believe he is promoting gun violence. Two days after the Texas shooting, the president praised another man in the church who shot Kelley. “If he didn’t have a gun,” Trump claimed, “instead of having 26 dead, you would have had hundreds more dead. That’s how I feel about it,” reported NBC News. With his pro-gun stance, Trump is fostering the view that gun ownership helps prevent massacres, and gun misuse is due to mental illness.

While I do believe mental illness and the availability of psychological services in the United States needs to be addressed, I think it is clear that gun control is what will prevent so many mass shootings from happening. The best way to prevent these tragedies is to ban the weapons that are used to hurt so many rather than promote equally violent retaliation. In the aftermath of the 2006 Dawson shooting here in Montreal, the college built a garden to promote a peaceful, safe space and began offering a non-violent communication course for students to take as an elective. I strongly believe this is the type of attitude the American president needs to have if there is any hope of lessening the number of tragedies his country regularly faces.

Following Trump’s response to the Texas shooting, the hashtag #LivingWithMentalIllnessIs began trending on Twitter. This is a positive step towards something bigger. This hashtag gives people who live with mental illness a platform where they can share their stories and disprove Trump’s views of why gun violence takes place. I also hope this hashtag promotes peaceful communication between people and ends the stigmatization of mental illness as a dangerous or violent disorder.

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin

Music Quickspins

Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights

Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights (Matador, 2017)

On Turn Out the Lights, Julien Baker’s second record, she is immensely vulnerable. The album sounds like an open diary, detailing her battles with mental illness, unsettled relationships and waning optimism about the future. While her first project, Sprained Ankle, seemed reluctant at times, the ballads on Turn Out the Lights are defiant and confident. Baker’s voice glides over spacious, piano-driven instrumentals. Her music references her Christianity, without limiting her to a strictly Christian audience. Baker hides pockets of happiness in an album defined by its haunting vocals and melodies. “Sour Breath” is open about alcoholism and loneliness, while on “Hurt Less,” she is candid about her relationship with self-care. Baker is honest and unapologetic over these arrangements, which truly allows her story to flourish.

Trial Track: “Shadowboxing”

Score: 9.1/10

Student Life

Au Contraire Film Festival puts the focus on mental illness

Four days of international films that reflect the realities of stigmatization

The Au Contraire Film Festival (ACFF) received over 300 film submissions from around the world for its  fifth edition.  Among those, the festival’s jury selected the top 25 films to present in Montreal from Oct. 24 to 27. “We want films that entertain, that make people aware and that educate the audience. That’s the thread of how we select films,” said Philip Silverberg, the festival’s founder.

The ACFF is an initiative of Paradis Urbain, a charity created by  Silverberg and festival director Marcel Pinchevsky, along with a small team. “Our mission was to provide a stage for adults who live with persistent or chronic mental illness to rehabilitate,” Silverberg said. In an effort to expand the charity’s mission and raise money, the team developed the ACFF.

“It has now become an important event in the annual Montreal mental health continuum—the festival is there to destigmatize mental illness,” Silverberg said. The ACFF showcases international, thought-provoking films that explore mental health issues from different perspectives. “We want to screen films that will change people’s perception on mental illness,” Silverberg explained. “Our films actually reflect all the realities of stigmatization, the feelings of being afraid, ignored, devalued and rejected. The films we select demonstrate that mental illness is not a fault, it is not a weakness and it is not a lack of character.”

Stills from the opening film of the festival, Elizabeth Blue.

Over the past few years, the ACFF has acquired an international reputation. “We have attracted not only good films but the directors and producers who attend the festival,” Silverberg said.  On Oct. 26, the ACFF screened a documentaries series featuring short films under the patronage of Réseau Alternatif et Communautaire des Organismes (RACOR), an association that represents nearly 100 community and alternative organizations involved in the mental health of Montrealers. One of these films was 32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide, a documentary that showcases the life and mental illness of Ruth Litoff, the sister of the film’s director, Hope Litoff.

This years festival offered a workshop called Re-Animation Introductory Workshop which was developed, designed and delivered by Animation Therapy Ltd. Focusing on both mental and physical health as one, the workshop was delivered to interested attendees including the animation department at Concordia University, Up House and The Museum of fine arts Art Therapy department.

Unique to this year’s fifth edition of the festival, the ACFF focused one night on francophone films at an event called Soirée-Lumière. This screening put the spotlight on Quebec films, with all proceeds going towards the ACFF and Weekend Champêtres, an experimental camp program for those with persistent mental illness. Silverberg said he hopes Soirée-Lumière will become a main stay in the festival’s program.

According to Silverberg, the festival’s goal is to enlighten the audience’s perceptions of mental illness through participation and discussion. “Whoever attends our festival should be prepared to be amazed, to laugh, to cry and to learn,” he said.


Mental illness is as serious as physical illness

The stigma around mental illness needs to end, and the conversations need to start

Full disclosure: I suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). If I’m not medicated, it will take me 20 minutes or more just to get out of my apartment in the morning. I will check to make sure the back door is locked several times over. I will check repeatedly that the stove and oven are off, despite having eaten cold cereal for breakfast.

Then I need to verify that nothing near the heaters could start a fire, even in the summer when I know the heaters are off. Finally, and most importantly, if I cannot see the cat when I close the front door to leave, I assume that he has escaped and is lost somewhere outside. All the while, I keep my right hand on the pocket where my keys go to make sure I haven’t left them inside (and won’t be subsequently locked out).

I know a lot of people have morning routines, and they may even have similar rituals themselves. However, in my daily life, I must do these things. It’s not just a habit—it’s something that releases a pressure inside me and satisfies a seemingly physical need. Now, keep in mind, this is just my attempt to leave home. None of this says anything of the day-long struggle to keep everything and everyone doing what I need them to do in a way that appeases these compulsions. That is the most exhausting part.

This is my everyday experience if I am not medicated. It is a pain in the ass, but my symptoms are mild compared to many others who suffer from OCD. I take medication for these symptoms, and I am not ashamed of that because they tell my brain that many of these silly rituals are unnecessary. Therefore, medication gives me the option to focus on what’s really important, like going to school and doing reasonably well. So, am I crazy? Am I a lunatic not worthy of anything more than a life of seclusion and shame?

I’m not embarrassed about having OCD, nor should I be. Just as someone with a physical disability shouldn’t be embarrassed either. This is how we need to start thinking about mental illness. The stigma of “weakness” or “lunacy” are old and outdated, just as the terms “invalid” or “cripple” are. The time has come to talk about mental illness in a constructive manner. And so, I am putting myself out there to say that I am not crazy—my brain just works in a different capacity than others, and I will not apologize for that. I am not responsible for the position I have been put in, yet, I’m responsible for managing it.

So, why are some people scared to talk about mental illness? Perhaps it’s because they cannot see it. Or perhaps they simply fear the unknown. Well, I’ve got news for you: it is visible and we can see it all around us. Unfortunately, though, it will remain unknown until we talk about it.

You know some of those folks living on our city streets, right near Concordia’s downtown campus, talking to garbage bins and yelling at shadows? That’s mental illness. And until we educate ourselves, they will continue to be marginalized by society. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, nearly 40 per cent of the homeless population in Montreal suffer from various forms of severe mental illness. They are not evil, they are not crazy, nor are they possessed (by anything other than the socially-constructed prejudices of others). They are examples of what happens when people fear you or don’t understand you.

Perhaps I could be one of them. Luckily, I have a network of understanding people around me and access to healthcare that keeps me in school and possibly off the streets. This is not afforded to everyone, but it needs to be. You can help just by talking about it. I want to talk about this, and I want to talk about it now. My hope is that this will get things started.

If you or someone you know is suffering from a mental illness, please seek help. It is worth the effort. You can contact the Canadian Mental Health Association, Action on Mental Illness (AMI) Quebec or Mouvement Santé Mentale Québec for help or to get more information.

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin


Getting a ‘handle’ on mental illness

One student’s experience with OCD and depression, and how she learned to seek help

Close your eyes. Imagine walking the halls of Concordia University, just like every other day. All is well when, unexpectedly, your breath is stolen away from you. Your limbs become numb and your vision starts to wane. You panic. Your body does not belong to you anymore. Your flight or fight response kicks in, and all you want to do is escape the absolute dread you are feeling.

For some, this may sound like a horror movie scenario. Unfortunately, many students at Concordia do not have to imagine this nightmare. Attending school, studying and completing assignments are a struggle for individuals suffering from mental illness, such as myself. Luckily, those afflicted by mental health issues don’t have to struggle alone.

When I was a child, I had rituals I felt compelled to do even though they made no sense. Whenever my mother left the house, I felt the need to kiss her four times on each cheek. If I did not do this, I believed she would die a horrible death and it would be my fault. No one understood my behaviour until I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) at age 12.

“So great,” I thought to myself. “I have OCD. I need to pull out and push in my chair four times and twist doorknobs until it feels just right. This is not what I want to be doing, but I can handle this.” And I did. All by myself.

A few years later, I began to experience a new feeling. It wasn’t quite sadness. I had felt sadness before. This feeling was far worse. It made me feel like I was imprisoned in the world I called home. This feeling turned the world grey and black, with only nuances of the colours I knew were supposed to be there. At 16, I was diagnosed with depression.

“So great,” I thought to myself. “I have depression to go along with my side dish of OCD and anxiety. I really don’t want to find out what dessert will be.” I was in absolute misery, but once again, I handled it on my own.

The thing about ‘handling’ a mental illness is that, eventually, the handle breaks. I took on the demons in my head alone for so long that they took the reins of my life. I had no choice but to watch as they sucked the life out of me.

At this point, I was so worn down that I simply did not care anymore. I stopped going to school because I thought: “What is the point in trying anything when your mind is constantly clouded with dark thoughts?” On good days, I would force myself out of bed, brush my teeth and, if I was lucky, I could muster the energy to take a shower. But when it came time to leave the house, I would crumble and find refuge under my blankets. On bad days, I didn’t make it out of my bedroom.

I don’t remember the exact moment I decided enough was enough, but I remember feeling angry. I felt angry that my brain was holding me hostage; it was robbing me of experiences, challenges and opportunities. I finally decided it was time to get the help I needed. I found a psychologist in the youth sector of the Jewish General Hospital as well as a psychiatrist who prescribed me medications to level out my emotions.

I am learning new ways to cope with these emotions, like focusing on the present instead of freaking out about some imaginary scenario that might never happen. Now, I make an active decision to care for myself every day.

I won’t lie—getting better is difficult at times. However, it’s the most worthwhile work you will ever do for yourself. And like any new endeavour, the beginning is the hardest part. Admitting to yourself that you are sick and that you need help puts you in a vulnerable position. Once you start getting better though, it will all be worthwhile.

Statistics Canada reports that one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. You may have heard this statistic a hundred times before, but I would like you to take the time to reflect on it. Statistically speaking, you, someone you know or someone you will meet will struggle with a form of mental illness. If you are suffering, please seek help. If you know someone who is suffering, please help them. Life is too precious to be spent in mental agony, and you are too important to stand for it.

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin


Bell Let’s Talk reaches Concordia

Stingers men’s hockey forward Philippe Hudon speaks out about his experiences with mental illness

In any given year, one in five Canadians suffer from a mental health or addiction problem, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

One of those Canadians is Philippe Hudon, a forward and assistant captain on the Concordia Stingers men’s hockey team. In 2010, Hudon was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

The condition is described as a disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviours (compulsions) that they feel the urge to constantly repeat, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Since sharing his story with sports network RDS in 2014, Hudon has turned his condition into a positive experience and has lent his voice to the discussion surrounding mental illness. This year, he is the Concordia Stingers’ representative for Bell Let’s Talk Day.

According to Bell Canada, on Jan. 25, more than 20,000 university athletes from 53 schools across Canada will take part in an initiative to promote mental health awareness on campuses.

For Hudon, helping Concordia take part in the Bell Let’s Talk campaign is something he’s always been interested in doing.

“The Stingers have been really involved with community work,” Hudon said. “When I came in, about two years ago, I really wanted to make a difference, especially with the Bell Let’s Talk initiative which I had already touched upon previously when I was playing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.”

One of the Stingers’ contributions leading up to Jan. 25 was the Bell Let’s Talk Day hockey game, which was held at the Ed Meagher Arena on Jan. 7. Before the match, which was against Ryerson University, the Stingers gave out pamphlets to raise awareness about Bell Let’s Talk and mental health in general.

Hudon, who is in his third year with the Stingers, got to take part in the ceremonial face-off before the game—an honour usually reserved for captains.

“It felt great to be a spokesperson for a great cause, especially with myself having been through times of hardship where I had to battle and come back better than ever,” Hudon said. “Being able to host a game and being able to be a part of the puck drop was pretty emotional, especially with all of my brothers on the ice with me.”

Apart from the game against Ryerson, Hudon has been involved with the Bell Let’s Talk initiative in other ways. For instance, he recently gave a talk at Kuper Academy in the West Island, where just one year ago, a student committed suicide.

Hudon talked to the students about mental health and his struggles with OCD. The assembly was organized by Kuper Academy student Ethan Chang with the goal of helping to end the stigma surrounding mental illness.

“At first I was really excited to do it because I love getting involved like that, but I was also really nervous. I’ve done presentations in class but talking to 500 students was something big,” Hudon said. “It turned out to be a success and that’s something that I’m really proud of.”

As part of Bell Let’s Talk Day, Hudon was given the opportunity to share his story on a national level. Earlier this month, he spoke to a representative at Bell about his struggles, and was approached by media outlets such as CTV and TSN for features.

Since airing his story on a major network three years ago, Hudon said he has become more confident in sharing his experiences. He said he will talk to anybody who is willing to listen, and believes it’s important to share his story with as many people as possible.

Hudon took part in the ceremonial face-off during a game against Ryerson on Jan. 7. Photo by Brianna Thicke

“I think that I can make a difference,” Hudon said. “By sharing my story, I hope I can help people whether they are affected personally by mental illness or not, or whether they know someone who is affected and that it gives them the tools that will help them in the near future.”

The Bell Let’s Talk initiative, whose official spokesperson is Olympian Clara Hughes, has been around since 2010 and has grown every year since. In 2016, the campaign broke its donation record, with over $6 million raised for mental health programs across Canada.

Hudon said it’s been incredible to see the increasing support for the initiative, and he feels that people are really starting to care about issues surrounding mental health.

“It makes me feel comfortable and happy that people aren’t just supporting Bell Let’s Talk for hashtags and social media. I think there’s more to it,” Hudon said. “I see more and more people actually want to get involved and want to know more. We want to include everybody in society and the growing number of spokespeople and donations is progress that makes me feel warm and happy.”

For those with mental illness who are worried or afraid about sharing their experiences, Hudon said it’s a tough situation. However, he said something that helped him when he was struggling was surrounding himself with his friends and family who were truly there for him.

“By sticking with your true friends, it’s going to make it a lot easier to talk because you know those people won’t judge you and will just listen,” Hudon said. “My motto is ‘lend an ear.’ For people who aren’t affected, just listen and be there for someone and make sure they aren’t lost and don’t feel like an outsider.”

If you’re a student at Concordia who is suffering from any mental health issues and needs someone to talk to, Health Services is open to all students and is located at 7141 Sherbrooke St. West in room 131 of the AD building.


Fighting my monster: living with anxiety

A student’s perspective on why we need to end stigma surrounding mental illness

There is nothing more frustrating than having a millions things you want to say and not being able to say them.
There is nothing more infuriating than feeling out of control of your own emotions and actions.
There is nothing more discouraging and isolating than people pushing you aside, and labeling you as feeble.

I have suffered from anxiety for a very long time, and was recently diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. I have dealt with obsessive compulsive behaviour, anxiety attacks, fear, and the constant feeling that something bigger and more powerful than me was standing on my chest 24 hours a day, seven days a week—in a constant state of fight or flight and high alert from what is usually a fabricated danger.

This summer, I found myself unable to sleep, curled up in a ball in my bed at 3 a.m. crying to my mother about how I couldn’t take it anymore. I just wanted it all to stop. Despite my struggles, I was never one to ‘give up,’ as they call it.  I was never one to lose total control. I always thought I was in control; I always had it all figured out.

My world was spinning—I felt as though I was alone in a dark room with no windows… no air. I could see the light through a small crack. I could see the people going about their everyday life; my friends, colleagues, everyone I knew so far away—out of reach. I knew what was out there, I knew it was good, but I couldn’t fit through the crack because the monster on my back was too large.

It was at that point that I realized I let my anxiety take complete control of my life. I had seen doctors in the past; I have had many health issues related to my stress. They’ve given me tips and ways to manage my anxiety. I’ve always managed to do it on my own, but now I felt defeated because I no longer could, and I felt like I had nowhere to turn. I was ashamed.

This year, I started treatment for my anxiety. This year, I spoke up and said that I could not longer do it on my own. I can proudly say that as of right now, I have not had a panic attack in three months.  I can take elevators again; crowded metros aren’t the death traps I once considered them to be. I can go to a movie theatre without constantly looking over my shoulder at every little movement I see in the dark. Small steps, but I am no longer ashamed of my struggles.

These may seem like completely ridiculous feats to you, but to me they are paramount accomplishments.  To me, they symbolize my ability to silence the monster on my back. It’s still there—I still have a lot of work to do, but if I keep reminding myself that I control it, and it not me, its power is greatly diminished.

I am writing this because people are quick to share links and re-tweet tweets on “Bell Let’s Talk” Day, but that’s one day in the year.  There are 12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days, and 8765 hours in a year, and in the life and struggle of someone suffering from anxiety, depression, and mental illness. It is so easy to feel alone and isolated, and for many that makes the situation even worse.

A change of mentality—an end to the stigma surrounding mental illness needs to be brought forth. It’s such an immense part of so many people’s lives. According to Canadian Institute of Health Research, one in five Canadians will experience a form of mental illness at one point in their lives. And yet, we are still whispering about it. Just writing this and publishing it with my name has me feeling rather nervous, even though I shouldn’t be.

The stigma is alive and thriving and I have unfortunately experienced it first hand. I am not weak, rather I am stronger than you could ever imagine. And to the people who say, “just shake it off,” you don’t just shake the monster off. You look it in the eye, and you fight it.  A person is always more powerful with the support of those around them.

You are not alone, I can promise you that.

Let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about the what, the why, and the how surrounding mental illness. Be kind, be good, take the time to be understanding and open-minded, and together we will find concrete solutions.

To learn more about “Bell Let’s Talk Day”, visit

Student Life

Do you know what it feels like for a boy?

Graphic by Phil Waheed

If we were to live by the rules of NBC’s The Biggest Loser, one of the most popular reality competition shows on the tube, dropping more than half your weight over the span of a television season is nothing short of an extraordinary success.

And it’s inspiring, really, to see obese people who couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs be able to run a 10K after weeks of grueling exercising and dieting. The contestants’ weights keep dropping and they are rewarded almost immediately by receiving kudos from the show’s personal trainers and admiration and jealousy from their opponents. The contestants’ backgrounds and life stories (and the producers’ sneaky, strategic editing) make viewers feel like there could be a biggest loser in everyone.

Contestants exercise to better their health and their lives; the “biggest loser” also gets a cash prize. At home, viewers are treated to fat people’s families’ ecstatic faces at the contestants’ new svelte physiques.

“Look at how happy they are,” they must think. “If I get skinny, people will like me more, too.”

Victor Avon used to be obese. Today, he is closing in on his tenth year battling an eating disorder. At his heaviest, Avon was a 19-year-old college freshman tipping the scale at almost 300 pounds. After teenage years in high school that seemed like they would never end, he whispered to himself words that would change his life forever.

“It was March 4, 2002,” Avon remembers. “I was in my student dining hall and I remember I was standing in line at the grill and I said, ‘F it, I’m going to go on a diet.’ By making that decision, I pushed that first domino over. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

He continued, “I hated my body growing up because of how people made me feel and how I was treated, and because I couldn’t change myself. I couldn’t take control of my body and get that perfect body that everybody would love me with. I had a lot of self-hate. I created the eating disorder as a way to control what the world could see. I was going to get the body that everyone always made fun of me for not having. I’m going to be the person they always wanted me to be, and I’m going to be happy.”

Psychologist Anna Barrafato runs a support group for students with eating disorders at Concordia University’s Counselling and Development Centre. She says eating disorders can be triggered by many things, including a childhood trauma or a lifelong battle with one’s own body image. They can also happen when dieting turns into an obsessive fear about getting “fat” and an addiction to losing weight. She says eating disorders are sometimes developed as a coping method.

Avon describes his father and uncles as ultra-masculine, and when he wasn’t bullied by his schoolmates, his family constantly made him feel like he wasn’t good enough. He had no one to turn to, and he says his eating disorder turned into his best friend. It was also the only thing in his life he had complete control over.

Barrafato says that eating disorders undoubtedly transcend gender, race, culture and socioeconomic status. She says the belief that an eating disorder is a woman’s affliction dissuades men into seeking appropriate help when they are showing symptoms. Studies also show that people believe men obsessed with their appearance and weight are gay. The fear of being mistaken for a homosexual or thought of as unmanly is strong enough for some men with eating disorders to never admit they have a problem.

Avon’s dieting in 2002 spiraled out of control into anorexia nervosa, which he was not diagnosed with until 2006. When he finally sought help and checked into Princeton University Medical Center’s eating disorder unit, he weighed 130 pounds. “They were surprised I was still alive,” he remembers. “My body was shutting down. My fingers were blue. I weighed less than my mother.”

Avon’s body mass index went from 40.7 to 17.6. A person’s BMI is calculated by dividing the person’s weight in kilograms by the square of the person’s height in metres. By North American standards, a person with a BMI over 30 is obese, while a BMI under 18.5 is considered underweight. According to 2004 figures from Statistics Canada, more than 23 per cent of Canadian adults and 30 per cent of American adults were obese.

According to the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders used by mental health professionals in North America, anorexia nervosa is diagnosed overwhelmingly in females, with up to 90 per cent of cases seen in women. The National Eating Disorders Association, for which Avon is the male spokesperson, echoes that statistic: of the more than 10 million people struck by eating disorders in the United States, only 10 per cent—or one million—are men.

“I stuck with the old stigma that men can’t get eating disorders,” Avon recalls. “I didn’t think anything was wrong with me. It was easy to fool myself for a long time because of the gender issue. I had never in my life heard of a guy getting an eating disorder. I also had a lot of positive reinforcement, ‘You look great, you’re taking care of yourself, dropping some weight and getting healthy.’ I just thought that it was the lifestyle that I had chosen.”

Avon has written a book about his experience, My Monster Within: My Story, in which he describes the mental anguish he felt when he missed a workout. “If I decided to run 55 minutes one day, instead of 75, the backlash that came with that in my head―it was not normal. It was never an option not to exercise. It was never an option to change without severe mental anguish. It was a total belief that if I changed one thing I did for one day, that I’d wake up the next day having gained 100 pounds overnight. It was fear that people would start rejecting me again. It was the fear that everything I ever felt growing up would come flooding back and happen again.”

From 2002 to 2008, Avon severely restricted his daily food and calorie intake and exercised like a “madman, to the point that I have major joint problems today. The only things I ate for six years were: chicken breast, turkey breast, beef, broccoli and some cheese. That’s it.

“I got myself to the weight that I thought I would be happy with. My physical body changed, but everything up here,” Avon said, pointing to his head, “always stayed the exact same. I still felt like I was in my old body, so I had all the insecurities that I lived with. It never got easier. I was never happy.”

Avon was hospitalized for four months, where he met with therapists and psychiatrists daily. Patients were also required to attend group therapy sessions where they essentially had to be retaught how to eat again and why food is so important for the human body. Avon, now 29, considers himself on the road to recovery, a road he has been trekking since 2008. “I was so sick for so long; six years with the eating disorder, and for most of my life I had major body image and food issues. I don’t want to say that my wiring’s all messed up. It’s a goal of mine to be fully recovered, but I don’t know if it’s going to happen.”

Avon says he has been on the road to recovery since 2008. As a spokesperson for NEDA, he attended a conference on eating disorders in Los Angeles over the summer hosted by medical professionals in the field. While Avon’s goal is to raise awareness for men afflicted by eating disorders, he found it disenchanting when psychiatrists turned to his accompanying wife to ask her how long she was sick for, requiring Avon to interject.

According to Barrafato, eating disorders are lifelong struggles and “it takes a very strong will to say that you are okay with the way you look.”

“I don’t think I’m happy with the way I look,” admits Avon, “but I accept the body I have. I could stand in the mirror and pick myself apart if I wanted to, but doing that only fuels the illness. I know I will never have the perfect body that I once craved, so the way to live and be okay with myself is to accept the body I am given and do my best to keep it healthy, to not focus on the outside but rather the inside.”

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