By Glenda McCarthy
It takes a lot of courage to speak out about mental illness and personal bouts of depression, but that’s exactly what Jennifer Saunders did through social media.
The St. John’s native originally published a video containing her story for Bell’s Let’s Talk initiative in January 2017, and shared her story again for Canadian Mental Health week in May. The Canadian Mental Health Association uses Mental Health Week to encourage people to #GETLOUD, and Saunders has done just that.
During the 17-minute video, Saunders details the incident that sparked her depression, along with the fallout that ensued.
“Initially I was only going to write a paragraph on my story for Bell Let’s Talks Day that took place on January 25, 2017 to raise awareness of the increasing stigma that surrounds mental health. Once I started writing my thoughts out on paper, before I knew it I had written nine pages and didn’t think anyone would actually read what I wrote, so I thought, ‘Why not make a video?,’” Saunders explained.
She was encouraged when she saw numerous friends telling their stories throughout Bell Let’s Talk Day, and she wanted to do her part to help raise awareness about the stigma that surrounds mental health.
“I am private person so the thought of uploading my story didn’t occur to me. As I continued reading story after story, I had many tears roll down my cheeks, and realized there are many more people in this world who suffer everyday just like myself,” she said.
“One of my close friends also suffers with a mental illness and had always come to me to help her through her bad days. On this particular day she had shared her story, and I called her saying how proud I was of her to share it and how touching it was. That’s when she suggested I should tell my story. I’m more of a timid person and couldn’t picture myself sharing such private information onto my Facebook for everyone to view. She kept encouraging me, along with a few other members within my family and friends, so I built up the courage and I did it.”
Saunders’ journey began in June 2013, which she describes as the beginning of a hard battle. Three days into 10-day vacation to Mexico, she had a spider bite which she said caused her physical and mental trauma. She says in the video that she, “felt like she would die.”
The day she returned to Newfoundland her parents had to call for an ambulance twice. Doctors at the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s diagnosed her as having panic or anxiety attacks, but she felt there was more to it.
“In the days, weeks and months to come, each day was a battle just to live. My family and friends didn’t understand what was happening, but neither did I,” Saunders said in the video. “My body went into continuous panic mode throughout the day and night. I would live in a constant state of anxiety, which developed into depression.”
As her outlook on life became very negative, it carried over into her studies. She failed out of the Electronics Engineering Technology (Biomedical) program at College of the North Atlantic, and says things got so bad she couldn’t leave the house without her parents.
Saunders admits she contemplated suicide on a regular basis, was on numerous medications, and put on a three-year waitlist to speak to a psychiatrist.
“I knew I needed help. I was reaching out and trying, but I wasn’t successful, nor did I have it in me to fight to get on the top of that list. So I waited and waited as my mental health slowly deteriorated as each day passed.”
Describing herself as a “walking zombie” from the medications, she says the Jennifer she knew was gone.
“I knew I wasn’t me, but I didn’t know why or how this happened … so here I was completely alone; none of my family or friends understood, nor did I. I began distancing myself from everyone, never returning calls or texts, just making excuses for why I couldn’t hang out.”
She finally saw a turning point in October 2016, but it was an uphill battle.
Eventually she stopped isolating herself, started seeing her friends and family more and even became involved in a volleyball team. By Jan. 25, 2017, just in time for Bell Let’s Talk Day, Saunders found the strength to re-enroll in the Electronics Engineering Technology (Biomedical) program at CNA. She proudly walked across the stage in June 2017 to accept her diploma.
Saunders doesn’t regret sharing her journey with mental illness. Her video quickly garnered 2,500 views and a lot of positive feedback on her Facebook account.
“I expected some type of feedback, but all of the kind words, 2,500 views on my video, and private messages were so overwhelming. My heart was so full that day and many days following,” she said.
“I wanted to raise the awareness of mental health, to allow others to know they’re not alone. So many people you attend school with, work alongside or know can silently be going through many tough times that has a detrimental effect on their mental health.”
But it no longer needs to be a silent battle.
For more about Mental Health Week visit http://getloud.mentalhealthweek.ca/. Jennifer’s video can be viewed at www.facebook.com/jennifer.saunders.5/videos/10158088931530058/.