Lead The Pack – Break The Stigma


This year, SMU Healthy Minds Team member Tessa O’Donnell started the “Lead the Pack” movement on campus. Below you will find three students and their individual stories about their struggles with mental illness. In honor of the fast-approaching Bell Lets Talk Day, the Journal wanted to feature these stories so other student know they are not alone. If you want to share your story and help “Lead the Pack” feel free to contact the Healthy Minds Team through their email healthyminds@smu.ca.

tessaTessa O’Donnell

My name is Tessa O’Donnell and I’m currently living with Uncomplicated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. On January 22nd I broke down the door to find one of my best friends after she had finally lost her battle to severe depression and taken her own life. Losing her wasn’t just a moment because my PTSD it is still here. It is waiting at the edge of my conscious mind for me to lose my focus so it can show me the worst day of my life all over again. It’s here when I find myself in front of her old apartment because I was trapped in a flashback. It’s here when I’m hallucinating with the shadows in a dark room and trying to tell myself that I don’t have to be scared. It’s here when I have migraines after waking up from nightmares. And it’s here when I numb myself to everything, good and bad, so I don’t have to deal with the pain.
But, like all mental illness, there are ways to cope. After almost a week of being deliriously tired and emotionally exhausted I sought the help of the wonderful people at the Saint Mary’s Counselling Centre. From there I was referred to a doctor for a PTSD diagnosis and over the course of four months with the centre I was able to develop grounding techniques and anxiety management skills, which has not only helped my PTSD but also improved my life in many other ways. This along with my amazing support system of coaches, teammates, friends, and family I was able to get through some of the roughest months of my life.
Not every day is easy, sometimes I let the PTSD get the best of me, but because of what I learned I know I will make it through when these symptoms are holding me hostage . I can focus on the memories I have with my best friend without being terrified of where they might lead. For me, accepting that I needed help was the biggest and scariest step, but once you get through that door things only get better.

Kala Rafusekala

My name is Kala Rafuse and I suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety. For me, it got worse before it got better. I was diagnosed in 2009 during the early stages of my high school years. Being from a small town, I had many concerns about being different and having my community think I was incapable of being “normal”.
For the years to follow I lost relationships, I lost friendships, and I lost myself a few times because of the annoying and persistent traits that come along with OCD. I needed constant approval and validation; I had little trust for anyone, I did odd things that no one seemed to understand or had the patience for.
There were times that I felt better and felt I had control of myself, but other times my life came crashing down and I couldn’t calm myself. Something I came to learn was that regardless of your support network, your diet, your sleep schedule, or how much you attend yoga, it isn’t always enough to fix yourself and feel happy or relaxed.
So, in 2015 I visited my family doctor who had been aware and up to date about my condition, and she prescribed me with medication. I fought the battle of taking pills for years. To me, taking medications to soothe my symptoms felt like I was admitting defeat, like I was so messed up that I had to rely on drugs to fix me. Reluctant as I was, I began taking my medications and as I said, it got worse before it got better. September was a mess; I started the smallest dose of medication and felt much worse. I don’t know if it was a result of the medications or a result of self-doubt. I visited my doctor again and again, she kept increasing my doses and by Christmas, I was ready to give up the medications and accept the life sentence of OCD.
I agreed to take my medications until the New Year, as per my doctor’s request, even though in September she told me I should feel results within 6-8 weeks. January 2016 was when my life really began to change. I lost a friend, as she could no longer continue with her battle against mental illness. During those following weeks, I felt like I had taken on a new role. I began identifying my own trigger points, I began recognizing when my friends needed a shoulder to lean on, and I started to feel like I grew a backbone in fighting against my own illness; in honor of my friend.

Nikolas Shymko15936395_795046873967418_5300007027610886527_o

My name is Nikolas Shymko, and I’ve suffered from depression. As a student-athlete, I spent almost 3 years of my university career dedicating countless hours to practise, film sessions, working out, and attempting to keep up with academics; because I was a football player. It was during the middle of my third season with the Huskies that my enjoyment of being able to play varsity athletics came to a halt. I had severely torn my hamstring, which required surgery promptly after the injury was discovered. The surgeon told me that he would try to repair the muscle so that in the future I would be able to “play and run around with your children”; this was a devastating. During rehabilitation, I spent weeks lying in bed and months unable to walk without assistance. I began to question my identity, because without athletics I felt worthless. Throughout this period I found myself in an endless spiral of negativity and poor decision making. If it wasn’t for the help and support of a few close friends I’m not sure I would have continued my education at Saint Mary’s. Thankfully, even in the darkest of times, Kanaar Bell, was there for me. Kanaar, a long time friend, was always there to help me realize that I was more than “just an athlete”. He’s been an influential, motivating, accepting, and trustworthy figure in my life since day one, and anyone who has had the chance to meet him would agree.
With the support of family and friends I sought help from The SMU Counselling Centre, which proved to be a difficult decision at the time because I thought that made me weak. In fact, reaching out for support helped made me stronger. In 2015, I began joining various societies around campus, continued to develop programs with the team at the Centre for the Study of Sport and Health, and most importantly I discovered my passion for academics.
I can proudly stand in front of you today knowing that I’ve been at my low, I’ve made mistakes, and I’ve wanted to give up, but I didn’t. I was able to find hope in the kind words of friends, mentors and family members. It’s thanks to these outstanding people in my life that I’ve been able to remain resilient, keep my chin up and admit when I need help.

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