Mental Health 101: One woman's search for peace

Two years after her brush with death, Mariette Lee talks about how grateful she is for friends and family.
Mariette Lee was surprised when she discovered how much she was valued by her friends and family. (Larry Strung)

You have talked publicly about your own experience with suicide. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Sharing my story never gets any easier, because in many ways, it's still going.

I attempted suicide because I felt pushed to the very extreme of negative thinking because I was unable to handle my depression and anxiety. In short, I wanted my panic attacks and feelings of worthlessness to go away — permanently.

Mariette Lee had to take a year off school when she became ill.
By this point, I was entering my third year of university and I wasn't happy with my original program. I wasn't excited about my studies in the way that I had hoped. I felt socially isolated because I never felt that I fully adjusted to university life, and in retrospect, I can see why. I had a terrible living situation resulting from not getting along with my first-year roommate and that made me weary of strangers. I didn't feel I have the same academic support I received in high school.

The friends I had grown up with and loved for the past 10 years were scattered all across Ontario, and I was constantly homesick. But I pretended that none of this bothered me and carried on, which didn't work very well because I was almost always ill and failed two courses in my second year. The littlest things would send me into a crying fit, which is probably why I almost stopped talking completely to everyone I knew, including my family.

My concentration was awful and I genuinely believed that I was too stupid for school. At this age, I’m supposed to be a thriving full-time student . . . and I wasn't fulfilling this demand. I was stuck in this rut of unhappiness.

How would you describe your mental health now?

Much better in that now I can better cope with my depression and anxiety. It has taken a lot of work through the hospital, and peer support. Now, I can recognize when I’m slipping and I refuse to allow myself to fall back into suicidal thinking. That's not to say that I have fully recovered. Living with a mental illness implies that I’m always in a state of recovery. There is turbulence through the ups and downs in my life, where I experience intense emotions both good and awful. But I've also come to learn to tolerate the awfulness such that I can go about my day — one day at a time — without being overly hindered by it.

How has it changed over time and why has it changed in that way?

It has changed from where I used to constantly be down and refuse to participate because I didn't feel capable of doing anything. And it has changed in that first I was guided by a good friend who also lives with a mental illness to seek professional and medical help.

Everything subsequent to taking that first step fell into place when I was required to go beyond my comfort level. I didn't force myself, but I recognized my state of discomfort and slowly pushed myself to enlarge my comfort zone and regain ownership of my emotions and life. Sounds kind of abstract doesn't it?

In the past two years from when I attempted suicide and thankfully did not succeed, I have since gained overwhelming support from my family and friends, my school, my teachers and my fencing teammates.

Before, this support was shrouded from me because I was too afraid and too confused to see it. I slowly saw more of it when a bunch of my friends found out and took turns to visit me at the hospital everyday. For that, I will always be grateful.

My illness forced me to take a year off from school. I returned to find that people noticed my absence – not just my physical absence, but also my joy and love for volunteering, fencing, school and my friends and family prior to my hospitalization.

In September COPE organized a series of events on mental health at McMaster.
And upon my return, when I finally felt comfortable enough to share my story, my friends embraced me and apologized for not speaking up. Some of them would have never guessed because during the days where I could function, I could hide my "inabilities" quite well. Most of them were just happy I returned and that I was alive.

This was a shock to me, because I hadn't realized what I and my life meant to my community. Returning to school was difficult because my confidence from my experience with attempted suicide dropped drastically. But knowing that I didn't need to feel alone or scared in this space was enough for me to keep going. It was hard and I couldn't always keep up with my peers, but I no longer felt incompetent because I've come to learn that my recovery takes as long as it takes.

That's not to say that I haven't had people who upon finding out that I live with a mental illness, looked down on me and shunned me for it.

Has there been one key thing that helped you move forward?

My personal growth through my mental health experiences – it’s a big part of why I’m so devoted to COPE: A Student Mental Health Initiative.

I’m so blessed to be able to work with such amazing people. COPE consists of not just students living with mental illness, but also those touched by it and those who are willing to learn more about it.

The work that we do: awareness campaigns, fundraising, and volunteering – we engage the student community in mental health issues and I’m so proud of how far we have all come together.

Over the years, I’ve interacted with many students, and every year, more people come up to us, thanking us and sharing their own stories. This gives me hope that COPE is doing something right.

Many people tell me that I’m "brave" for doing what I’m doing, and I’m never sure why, because I look around me, I look at my colleagues and members from COPE, and I look at the other mental health organizations on campus, and even ones at other universities.

I look at all the people who are seeking us out – they are the ones who are brave.  Some of them, I’ve had the privilege of seeing become more confident over the years.

Others, simply because they actively seek us out for mental health opportunities. These are the people who are willing and actively standing up for mental health awareness. They may not know it, and I don’t very often get the chance to tell them either, but they teach me to be brave as well.

People in mental health circles talk a lot about stigma. How do you feel about the stigma of mental health?

Stigma exists. And I will not apologize for saying it. COPE received a letter from someone who expressed his contempt for us using the word during our MOVE FOR MENTAL HEALTH awareness run back in September. We had made it known that we were doing it to defeat depression and to spread awareness of mental illnesses. In hosting this event, we wanted to promote compassion and understanding on campus to mitigate this stigma.

This person emailed me expressed that he doesn't believe that the word stigma should ever be used, and went as far as saying that he would never allow his son or daughter to attend a university that alleges a stigma no matter against whom, or by whom. And when I read that email, I was deeply unsettled. Just because somebody doesn't want to say there is stigma, doesn't mean that it's not there.

McMaster president Patrick Deane and some of the COPE members at a September event.
When I say that I've had unpleasant experiences with people looking down on me, it was painful. Upon returning to school, yes, I had more than my fair share of support, but likewise the opposite.

People I thought were good friends and respectful colleagues told me that they thought my mental illness was just an excuse to be lazy or a "bitch". There where people who refused to associate with me because they felt I was too "mentally unfit" to work with. And those were some of the nicer terms they used.

I remember several occasions in class where, and I can't remember how this discussion came up, but students were talking about accommodations for students with disabilities were unfair. While they can sympathize with why those with a physical disability needed academic accommodations to perform on par with other students, they could not with those who identify as living with a mental illness. For someone living with a depression or anxiety, some students don't believe someone like me deserve extra help because I just need to "get their shit together".

These interactions, both personal and listening to what my peers had to say, I say YES. STIGMA IS A SERIOUS PROBLEM. For somebody like me who enjoys school and loves everything that I’m studying, who is involved in athletics, and engaged in student and community life, be told that I am an undeserving to be a student at any academic institution is incredibly unfair and atrocious.

What do you have to say to others dealing with issues of mental health?

It's going to be hard. It is hard and there is no way of sugar-coating it.

Everybody needs to take the time to find that anchor in their life that they can always hold onto when they start feeling horrible about themselves.

There are definitely resources available for those who are struggling with mental illness. But everyone is also unique, so not all resources are appropriate for everyone. Again, it takes that time and effort to go beyond your comfort zone to find something that works for you. Resources exist, but you have to want to deal with these issues of mental health and mental illness. And from my experiences, these issues are both clinical and social.

We must learn to tolerate it and this takes a tremendous amount of inner strength. I believe everyone deserves to wake up every morning and say, "I want to be okay today. I want to be able to be the best that I can be today despite whatever circumstances."

Not everything will always be peachy, because there are always good and bad moments. But having those good moments will be worth it. These moments when we've taken everything we've done and say "I'm okay", are the ones we need to cherish. We cherish these moments because they remind us that there are more to come.

For me, it's waking up everyday and going to school knowing that I deserve to be alive and that I deserve to be doing all that I’m doing right now.

What do you have to say to their friends and families?

The first thing that I would say is that if you have a knee jerk reaction of "Oh! This can't possibly be happening!" or "What does this even mean"? I can completely understand — the fear, the confusion, the shock, the worry and whatever else that may accompany you in discovering that your friend or family member is living with a mental illness. Too often, it seems to come out of the blue.

Mariette Lee says you will experience fear, confusion, shock and worry. That is normal.
Definitely give it time to sink in. Your loved ones are experiencing that same fear, confusion, shock, worry. You may not understand everything that they're going through, because they may not necessarily understand what they're going through.

I remember being hospitalized and I couldn't bring myself to tell my friends and family right away. They eventually found out. Unfortunately, my best friend found out through my sister and I remember him being terribly upset. He told me later on that he was really concerned and that he felt helpless. But he was willing to reach out to me in any way that he could, even when I wasn't in my unreachable state. And for me in that moment, his willingness was more than enough.

The second thing that I would say is that please be patient with people living with a mental illness because they're still trying to figure things out. It's not that they don't want to open up, it's that they're stuck in this inexplicable situation.

In my personal experience it wasn't that I didn't want to speak to people, it was that I couldn't speak to people. With my peers and with my classmates, I felt utterly stupid and incompetent.

With my family, I felt like an invalid, disconnected with all aspects of my family's lives. I couldn't talk to my family in the beginning about it because how can I possibly explain to my loving parents and sisters that I didn't want to live anymore?

I knew I loved my family and my friends, and I valued my life and everything in it, I just couldn't remember it at the time. But I can't possibly forget it now, because I’m constantly reminded of it now.