Debbie Sesula on mental illness, stigma and the road to recovery
Debbie Sesula is no stranger to adversity. While completing her Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology, she became depressed, began self-harming and attempted suicide. After being hospitalized intermittently for a year for what would eventually be diagnosed as bipolar disorder, Sesula returned to university and completed her bachelor’s degree. She now works tirelessly in the community, raising awareness about mental health issues and advocating for those diagnosed with mental illness.
Sesula is co-coordinator of the Peer Support Program at VCMH services, provincial coordinator of B.R.I.D.G.E.S (Building Recovery of Individual Dreams and Goals through Education and Support) support and education program through BC schizophrenia society and a W.R.A.P (Wellness Recovery Action Plan) program facilitator. She also teaches Consumers in Action, which is a leadership skills program.
Sesula talked to the Vancouver Observer about stigma, discrimination and offers some valuable insight for individuals diagnosed with a mental illness.
How did you get involved in mental health awareness and advocacy?
A person who was a mental health advocate said to me, why don't you get involved on the advisory committee and work in advocacy? So I explored it, and did get involved on an advisory committee in my community, and from there, went up, up, up, into more and more positions in the consumer movement.
What interested you about advocacy in particular?
That we have a voice. And back in the day, we did not have a voice. People with mental illness (were told to) take your pills, go away, don't call us, we won't call you kinda thing. We weren't allowed to speak at the table. When they developed these advisory committees of consumers, family members and service providers, we had a voice. So it was really nice partnership to have all perspectives brought to the table.
Would you like to tell me a little bit about your personal experience with mental illness?
That began when I was 27 years old. I was in my last year of university. I no longer wanted to attend classes, didn't want to do the oral presentations, could barely get out of bed. I was normally very outgoing and friendly, and I became very withdrawn, isolated, sad, hopeless, and helpless.
Even though I was studying psychology and had taken the course called Abnormal Psychology, I didn't associate that, hey, maybe something's wrong. I thought maybe it was burnout from university. I did manage to graduate, get my bachelor’s degree in psychology. I took off to Europe for five weeks, thinking, well, that'll solve everything. It didn't. I came back and got a job in a gas station. One day, I just started sweating profusely, my heart was pounding, I was shaking. I thought I was having a heart attack, phoned my boss, went to the doctor, and he said, you had a panic attack. And I got on medication.
Unfortunately, medication didn't help, and I became more and more severely depressed, got suicidal, and was obsessed with ending my life. After a number of unsuccessful suicide attempts I ended up in the hospital. As a last resort, they gave me shock treatment. I was discharged from hospital, unfortunately too soon.
Then things turned into a psychotic depression, which means disconnecting from reality. I would see things that weren't really there, I would hear things that weren't really there, I'd believe things that weren't really true. An example of that is, cars would say to me, destroy yourself by a certain date or we'll destroy you. I'd be so terrified, I'd run into my apartment, only to turn on the radio or TV and have the newscaster say the same message.
So to me, that was just as real as you and me sitting here. You couldn't convince me that that wasn't real. And then I was hospitalized again. After discharge, I went into a residential facility, and that was actually a really good time because it gave me time to heal. No responsibility, just 24-hour care.
Then I got involved in an employment program through a local clubhouse. That's where I started to get my sense of identity back. It was also at that time that a friend introduced me to a workshop called "Understanding How and Why We Behave the Way We Do", which is based on Reality Therapy Choice Theory by Dr. William Glasser. That workshop taught me that we have needs, we're entitled to meet those needs, and we're responsible for our behaviour.
So that gave me a lot of hope. I was determined: okay, so I have mental illness. Big deal. That doesn't mean my life has to come to an end. And it was from that point on I thought, no, mental illness is not going to control me anymore. I'm going to control it. I can live beyond this, and live a normal life like everybody else. Many people have many other afflictions, and they still live normal lives. So why can't I? That was the beginning of my main journey of recovery and climbing to meet the stars, so to speak.
From there, I got involved in peer-run programs. A program that I got involved in was called B.R.I.D.G.E.S., which stands for Building Recovery of Individual Dreams and Goals through Education and Support. It's a peer-run education course that teaches people about the main mental illnesses, biology, the brain, medications, coping strategies, problem solving, so some really valuable information that, gee, I wish I had had way in the beginning when I was first diagnosed.
Now, it's my turn to give it back. I got back my sense of identity, got involved in the peer-run program, and peer support. That's where my passion went. The value of connecting with my peers was just unbelievable. We got involved in partnership presentations, which are where a person with a mental illness, a family member and a service provider goes out and educates, usually in the high schools. It was just incredible ... students would actually listen. You could hear a pin drop when we told our stories. And then from there, I got involved in peer support, and took the first peer support training.
Did you struggle with your diagnosis when you were first diagnosed?
I was given a number of diagnoses, or labels, and one of them was one that people really freak out about: borderline personality disorder, and they go, oh, that's a bad one. I was a classic person with borderline personality disorder, the self-harm, the extreme unstable relationships, the seeing only black or white. There was no grey. Either you're the best person in the world, or you're the worst. And it was going through that workshop when I identified that these are behaviours, not symptoms, and I could do something about them. And so from borderline, I'm 100 per cent recovered -- 100 per cent. So there is hope, and there's help.
Do you have any advice for individuals thinking about disclosing their mental health status?
When I had a mainstream job, I didn't disclose. However, now, I do. And it doesn't matter. I have no shame. None whatsoever. Why is this any different than if someone has cancer, or high blood pressure, or diabetes? They will share freely. They're not ashamed of it. Why should we, people with mental illness, hold back from sharing? No, I am who I am. This is my journey of recovery. It's what I have. And it's a gift ... had I not gone through what I'd gone through, I wouldn't have gained the compassion and understanding that I now have towards my peers.
So why do you think there's so much stigma and discrimination about mental illness?
I look at it as sort of like the fear of the unknown. Like, I know I'm afraid of things, and get that way when I don't know things and I'm uncertain. Mental illness is unpredictable, it's cyclic. Behaviours are unpredictable. Our thoughts are unpredictable, our moods are unpredictable. It's the unknown, you know. And it's invisible, for the most part. Like, you have a broken leg or a broken arm, it's very obvious. But mental illness is hidden. We're just normal people. Your neighbor, your coworker. Regular people, one in five people will struggle with mental health difficulties. That's a lot.
Do you think society will just eventually get to the stage where it is accepted?
Oh, I hope so.
How do you think we can get there?
There are stigma-busting campaigns. And some of them have been very successful, especially in New Zealand. You know, what Bell (Enterprises) just did. They said, today we're going to talk about mental health. That one day. That was brilliant. You know, stuff like that, regular people, like Bell, any company, starting to take a stance on mental health issues. And in the workplace, it's so prominent.
A lot of positive steps, definitely. Do you have any advice for individuals with a mental illness?
Just not to give up. Had I given up on my life, way back when, look at what I would've missed. You don't know what tomorrow brings. Just reach out, there is help, there is hope. And that's the piece that sometimes, if people don't have hope, other people hold onto that hope for them. It's that belief in people. So just believing that you don't know what tomorrow will bring. Yes, it may be horrible right now. But you don't know what tomorrow brings. Don't give up. I didn't.
For more information about B.R.I.D.G.E.S Education and Support Program, visit: http://www.bcss.org/2007/05/programs/bridges-education-and-support-program/
For more information about W.R.A.P, visit: