Bipolar disorder Featured Mental health Patient stories

I have bipolar disorder. Here’s how I’m shattering the stigma of mental illness

Virginia McKinnell

It was my first semester at Queen’s University and I was studying engineering.

My symptoms began with racing thoughts. I couldn’t sleep. For a fairly controlled person, I was out of control.

After numerous visits to the Queen’s walk-in clinic, I was finally referred for a psychiatric assessment. That’s when I received my diagnosis.

“You have bipolar disorder. Type I.”

I was 18 years old, alone in a new city, and on my own for the first time. I was meant to be preoccupied with parties and midterms. I needed to learn how to do laundry.

I suppose no one is ever ready to hear they have a mood disorder. I certainly was not.

It took about 30 seconds for the doctor to deliver the news. It also took about 30 seconds for me to choose to ignore it.

For six years, I refused to accept that I had a mental illness. After three manic episodes, two depressive ones, and six different medications the reality of my diagnosis started to sink in. It took an episode of psychosis so severe that I realized not getting help could have life-threatening consequences

How I learned to accept my mental illness and be more compassionate with myself

I spent so long being ashamed of my mental illness. I resisted the label “Bipolar” with every fibre of my being. A mood disorder requires a tremendous amount of courage and resilience – both of which are hard to summon when you’re ashamed.

My most recent episode also happened to be the most severe. It resulted in a one month hospital stay. It was my time as an inpatient at Sunnybrook that taught me compassion. I made so many friends in the psych-ward. I became friends with people from all different walks of life and all ends of the mental illness spectrum. I never once judged them for being sick.

I realized that for years, the greatest stigma I had ever experienced was from my own self. I’d always been my own toughest critic. That’s what triggered my epiphany. I realized that people can’t be made to feel ashamed over something that they themselves are not ashamed of.

I have bipolar disorder. It’s a disease. It’s just like any other disease. I would never ignore the fact that I had cancer. I would never refuse insulin for diabetes.

Too many people with mental illness suffer in silence because of the perceived shame of what others may think. We resist treatment because of the social barriers we place on ourselves. I realized I needed to do something positive.

What I am doing to raise awareness about mental health

This past spring, I started Mind Over Miles, a Toronto-based running club raising funds and awareness for mental health. We really want to contribute to the construction of the new Murphy Family Centre for Mental Health at Sunnybrook Hospital, which will provide leading-edge care to people with mental illnesses with the help of brain specialists and researchers.

Our run club is about fostering a community dedicated to understanding mental health. It’s about creating a positive space where anyone can share their story and ask for help. On Facebook, we release videos of people sharing their stories. Each video ends with a screen that reads “Join the Conversation.” Our hope is that as more people talk about it, the easier it becomes to continue the conversation about mental health.

If you need help in an emergency please call 911 or visit your local emergency department.

About the author

Virginia McKinnell

Virginia McKinnell is the founder of Mind Over Miles (MOM), a Toronto-based running club that is raising awareness about mental health to help break barriers and shatter the stigma around mental illness. MOM is also raising funds for the new Murphy Family Centre for Mental Health at Sunnybrook.