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Debbie Sesula on mental illness, stigma and the road to recovery

Photos by Brice Ferré

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 I was normally very outgoing and friendly, and I became very withdrawn, isolated, sad, hopeless, and helpless.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.

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