Out in the Open

The stigma around mental health can be hard to overcome when you live in a small town

Emma McCann says that lack of privacy in small communities can be a barrier to getting help when you need it.

Emma McCann says that lack of privacy in small communities can be a barrier to getting help when you need it

Emma McCann grew up in Sarnia, Ontario. (MMSarnia)

Emma McCann grew up in Sarnia, Ontario, population roughly 70,000. It's a small city, but McCann says it has a small town feel. 

"You tend to know everyone or know someone who knows everyone".

There are aspects of that strong sense of community she likes, however she thinks it can also pose a challenge when you need privacy. For McCann, who was prone to panic attacks from a young age, getting help for her mental health issues was difficult to do without risking someone finding out. 

"Wherever you go you're going to run into someone you know, or someone who knows your parents or someone who knows your sisters," she said.

Seeking help can risk exposure

"Growing up in Sarnia there weren't a ton of mental health resources, especially when I lived there," McCann tells Out in the Open.

When she needed a place to go, one of her only options was the hospital emergency ward, inconveniently (for those looking to go unnoticed) located right beside the high school.

"That in and of itself could be an absolutely terrifying experience because not only is there a good chance you're going to run into someone you know in the hospital, there's a good chance a ton of people are going to see you heading there and start asking questions."

McCann said she was a good student and involved with her community, that she was perceived as someone who was going to go somewhere... and the fear of being perceived as anything but that was present while growing up.

Stigma serves to limit open conversation

While McCann was in high school, there was a series of suicides in Sarnia. Nine young people took their own lives over two years.

"A lot of the policies that were in place at the time took the approach that the best way to stop ourselves from further losing more young people was to not talk about it," McCann said. "I think that really demonstrates what can happen in a small town."

She questions where young people in smaller communities are supposed to learn about mental health when it is so stigmatized and its realities so unspoken.

"In bigger cities we often have these conversations, 'Well the stigma of mental health is gone' ... but that's not necessarily true in rural areas or small towns, where we haven't had that same kind of shift in perspective."

Bringing it all back home

McCann now calls Toronto home, but she still experiences the fear that people in her hometown may know about her struggles with mental health.

"I have this wonderful, beautiful support network that still exists there and yet there is still that fear ... did someone see that post that was about me? Did someone see that article that was about me? Did someone hear my voice on the radio and now I'm outed to another person that 15-year-old me wouldn't have wanted to hear this story?"

Part of how McCann has coped is by using her own experiences to help others. She shares her story with teens and consults with them to hear how they think mental health services should be offered. It's her way of breaking stigma and trying to get those who look at mental illness as a weakness to reconsider.

"There are a lot of young people who are living with mental illness and it's part of who we are but it doesn't define who we are. If you are going to look at that as weakness then you have long way to go in your own thinking and it's your responsibility to learn more about mental health and mental illness and maybe it will do you some good too."

This story appears in the Out in the Open episode "Youth Mental Health"