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Mar 8, 2023
Since 2019, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), Alberta Division has been working on the Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) Project – a three-tiered initiative to research the lived experience of people with MDD, develop and amplify educational messaging, combat stigma, raise awareness and understanding of MDD, and to advocate for ways to improve support, resources and living quality for Canadians affected by MDD.
CMHA, Alberta Division sat down with Julien Quickstad, whose dual lens as a person living with MDD and a student studying psychology has helped the MDD project and provides a unique perspective.
The ways depression can manifest in a person’s life vary greatly and can seem near-polarized from case-to-case; someone with MDD may have trouble sleeping or may oversleep, for example. This makes an MDD diagnosis elusive at times – with such a variety of symptoms, it is not always clear that being screened for depression is the best course of action. For Julien, knowing to pursue a diagnosis didn’t materialize until things had boiled over.
Depression can be exasperated by strenuous circumstances. Julien notes different times it became more apparent there was an issue. First, there was substance abuse to help cope with past trauma. After deciding to cease relying on substances, depressive symptoms began to take root in his personal life. These symptoms included memory loss and a creeping lack of motivation.
When the pandemic hit, Julien decided to shift gears and pursue psychology – but the depressive episodes intensified. “About three months in, with the stresses of exams, the learning material, all while working – it started getting worse. The depression symptoms – it got to the point where I couldn’t even get out of bed,” he says, reflecting. “It’s a scary feeling to have. It’s like feeling nothing.”
Shortly after this escalation in symptoms, he went to a doctor. After a three-month wait – something Julien says must be solved in the mental health system – he was on the proper medication and attending therapy. A proper diagnosis and treatment path had been ascertained, but there were obstacles in the way; symptoms and the need for screening are not always obvious, and the process to get started on the path to a diagnosis can be bogged down by wait times and referrals.
A major barrier to making progress with MDD is how stigmatized it is in daily life. Julien recounts the various ways stigma surrounding his mental health journey, from the pressures of being a man and “not wanting to rely on someone else,” to the “thick skin” culture of the oil patch where he was working at the time, to the fear that disclosing a diagnosis could hamstring career prospects.
Regarding the culture to toughen up on the oil rigs, Julien acknowledges that one’s environment deeply affects the level of stigma experienced with MDD. “Stigma then versus now looks different. The groups I’m in – I’m not afraid to talk about it now because I’m not afraid of what they will think of me, or that it will affect a workplace relationship or inhibit me from having a promotion – stuff like that.”
Knowledge is power, and in the case of understanding and supporting loved ones through mental illness, perhaps doubly so. When asked how his mental health journey and psychology studies influence each other, the power of awareness is made evident. “I’m getting a lot more patient with myself. From an academic side, I’m very patient with people, because I understand their symptoms…I want to be a clinical counsellor, and obviously, the more I learn, the more I know about myself – and the more I can help someone else.”
Awareness and education allow us to manage our own mental health and support those around us. As Julien’s journey in psychology provides him with the knowledge to better understand mental illness in patients, he comes to a deeper understanding with his own journey and is finding the patience he practices with others. This tangible, real-life example of the power of mental illness education, reinforces the need to continue conversations and the development of educational MDD resources for the public.
When Julian envisions a path to improved support and reduced stigma for those living with MDD, his advocacy, career choice, and personal experience converge. “The biggest issue – and that’s why I’m working to bring awareness to it – is just normalizing it. People are scared to ask for help when you’re doing something…not like everyone else. That immediately isolates a person. If it’s normalized…it’s a lot easier to do so. If I was to imagine this utopian future…maybe it’s not even called mental health, it’s just called health.”
This idea of a natural progression from MDD education and awareness, to advocation for resources and supports in workplaces and governance, to the realizing of mental health as an incorporated, vital component of general health is a common and powerful thread in mental health work. Establishing mental health and illnesses like MDD as being every bit as vital, legitimate and commonplace as any physiological area of health is a powerful argument to fund better access and quality of care for all Canadians.
In Julien’s mind, realizing this future starts with normalizing the conversation so that people in the situation he was in years ago might find a path to mental wellness with fewer obstacles – and find that path sooner.
If you or someone you know needs mental health support, please call 211 (in Alberta) or your local distress line.