Ottawa·First Person

Pandemic advice from those who've struggled with their mental health

Three people who’ve struggled with their mental health in the past share what they went through, and offer advice to those newly suffering during the COVID-19.

From cold showers and gratitude journals to medication and outdoor time, 3 locals share their stories

'What got me through:' Three people who've struggled with their mental health share what helped them in the past, offering advice to those struggling during the pandemic

2 years ago
Duration 6:18
In this video by videographer Fangliang Xu, we hear why outdoor time, cold showers and writing down the good things can make a difference. The music in this segment was composed by Mitchell Wright, an Ottawa-based hobbyist composer. For him, composing music and being creative plays an important role in maintaining good mental health.

CBC Ottawa asked three local people who've struggled with their mental health in the past to share their experiences, what helped, and their advice for those who are now struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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For Danne Sa, medication and a gratitude journal have helped her cope with depression and bipolar. She wants people to know it is possible to get to the other side. (Fangliang Xu)

Danne Sa, 57

After my first child, I had the baby blues. I was diagnosed with postpartum depression at 39 after I had my second one. 

I couldn't wake up or get out of bed. I was so tired all the time and I was not able to go back to work.

That's when I went to seek professional help. My doctor prescribed medicine. It was a scary thing, but luckily it worked right away and I was able to function well again in the lab.

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But then, in winter 2008, it was very cold with lots of snow. Grandma was in an accident and I had to translate for her at the hospital. Lots of things were going on in my family at the time.

I got a bad cold and I neglected to take my medicine.

After a few days of lack of sleep, I had a breakdown. I couldn't stop my thoughts; they kept racing faster and faster.

I rushed to see my psychiatrist and this time he diagnosed me as bipolar. 

I know, I've been there, I've done it. I can tell you that there's a way to get to the other side.- Danne Sa

I was so frightened. The more I researched bipolar disorder, the more concerned I got because it can be lifelong. But luckily, my psychiatrist stabilized my mood and I was able to get back to work.

I had a friend who introduced me to a "gratitude journal." The purpose is to spend a couple of minutes each day writing down things that you are grateful for. 

My first entry says, "Today is a sunny day." My second, "I'm grateful that I can get up and take a shower."

Even if they're very simple, when you put down a good thing on paper and then another, you feel happier. Gradually, I changed a lot, and that happy feeling built up inside me.

It's not common in the Chinese community to talk openly about struggling with mental health. People still feel a sense of shame about it or that it's something private.

I feel that if I can be brave enough to talk about it, others will be brave enough, too.

People need to know that you can come out of mental illness and still live a decent life.

I know, I've been there, I've done it. I can tell you that there's a way to get to the other side. 

Danne Sa is a food lover, biomedical researcher and mother of two in Ottawa.

Jamil Bhuya says cold showers are one of the things that's helped him manage his anxiety at home. (Fangliang Xu)

Jamil Bhuya, 31

I don't know when my anxiety really began. I think with my cultural upbringing, there's always a lot of pressure to be the best and to perform well in school or in sports. 

For me, it took a turn in June 2016. I was supposed to fly to Paris, and I've always been a little scared of flying. Two weeks earlier, a flight crashed and everyone went into the water. Somehow that triggered an existential crisis around a lot of things I never dealt with as a child. 

My background is Southeast Asian, and I think a lot of people can relate to this if you're from an immigrant family: the sense that your parents were hardworking and had to grind through their life, and because of that, we have to live up to certain expectations.

Between my friends, it's a joke. Tell your parents you got a 95 per cent, and the first question they ask is, 'Where'd the other five go?'

I think being an entrepreneur I'd often feel that pressure, too. Do I know what I'm doing? Is my business going to survive? 

Even after I went on the flight, I was so exhausted and mentally beat up that I spent all day crying in the hotel room. After that, the next couple of years were the hardest of my life.

I started worrying about everything. It was bleeding into my business and my self-confidence. I was gaining weight. I wasn't sleeping well. I would wake up and be so tired I couldn't get up. But when I'd close my eyes to try to go back to sleep, my mind would just race.

I tried to do simple things to help: affirmations, yoga, meditation.

It sounds harsh but you're not entitled to being happy or positive. It's just seriously hard work.- Jamil Bhuya

I even stopped drinking coffee for a while, but coffee is just too good to give up forever.

Then I read about cold showers to reduce anxiety. I thought, "What the hell, that that seems a bit random." But I tried it.

Now when I say cold shower, I'm not talking about kind of cold. I'm talking about the coldest your shower can be.

I do it for two-and-a-half minutes, and it gets my competitive juices flowing. I feel awake, alive and so present that my mind has no time to wander. 

After a year-and-a-half, I still come out feeling positive and accomplished. I tell myself, if I can start my day with the hardest thing physically, the rest will be easy.

I think the best advice I could give anyone is to figure out the thing that works for you, and then keep doing it.

It sounds harsh, but you're not entitled to being happy or positive. It's just seriously hard work.

Jamil Bhuya splits his time between Ottawa and Toronto as the CEO and founder of the halal burger chain Burgers n' Fries Forever.

Evelyn Harford says simple things like outdoor time and walks helped her stop her panic attacks. (Fangliang Xu)

Evelyn Harford, 29

After I had my daughter 20 months ago, I suffered from postpartum anxiety. 

When I first started experiencing symptoms, I didn't recognize them as problematic. I just thought it was a normal part of becoming a new mom, being anxious about your kid's health and well-being.

In hindsight, I can see signs that it came to a head when my daughter was about seven months old, in February or March, right around the same time the pandemic started. 

That's when I had my first panic attack.

At first, I didn't know what it was because I'd never had one before. I felt tingly and a bit floaty, my heart was beating fast, my palms were sweaty and my mind was racing. I thought about nothing and everything at the same time.

My daughter was napping, and I messaged one of my friends to say, "Hey, I kind of need your help right now." She understood what was happening and told me it was likely a panic attack. 

Then, they started to happen multiple times a day. That's when I knew I needed to talk to my doctor.

My doctor said that I could be dealing with anxiety long-term, but that I could build things into my life to alleviate the symptoms. 

To any one that is struggling, I know that it can get better.- Evelyn Harford

I spoke to a therapist about ways to structure my life differently to create a calmer environment, and to create routines, like outdoor time, that help fulfil you — simple things that make a big difference.

My daughter and I go for a walk, we garden, we're outside with the chickens. It's fun and it's fun for her. Doing things that make you happy during the day and that fill you up are important. 

And as much as I love doing things with my daughter, carving out time for self-care is also important. You also have to remember to take care of you. 

I can't remember the last time I had a panic attack. The strategies I used have worked to keep the worst of the symptoms at bay.

But it's a learning process, and I don't think you ever really shake it off and say, "Oh, it's fixed." It's about developing a mindset that you take forward with you for the rest of your life. 

I know it's hard with the pandemic and not seeing family members.

But if you can get some reprieve — a break, just a minute where you can collect your thoughts or fill your own cup, it is crucial to not put so much pressure on yourself. 

Evelyn Harford is a journalist and new mom in Lanark Highlands, Ont., west of Ottawa.

Need help? Here are some mental health resources: