This week Bell Canada launched it’s Let’s Talk campaign to end the stigma of mental illness. One in five people will deal with mental illness at some point in their life. I am one of them.

Several years ago, after a traumatic physical illness, I was handed the label of general anxiety disorder (GAD). And that’s how I treated it;  like a label. It’s not a definition. It’s not an excuse. It’s not a disability or a liability; it’s just a label.

GAD isn’t very sexy, really. It is a spectrum disorder that has a whole realm of issues within the diagnosis. So while I haven’t suffered deep depression, I have many shades of blue that have landed me a weeping mess in a chair in the office of my doctor, whose compassion led me to the office of a kind and incredible therapist.

I have suffered a panic attack in the grocery store and in the hallway at work. Not a single person noticed either time. I have ignored the doorbell and turned off the telephone because I couldn’t face anyone. I have left social gatherings because I couldn’t take the crowds and ended friendships because I couldn’t be what they needed me to be. I am adept at avoidance. Nobody had a clue.

That’s what mental illness is: the great secret. And like all secrets, it festers until it makes you physically sick. It’s a double-whammy.

Ironically, my physical near-death experience is something I have had no fear talking about it. People seem more receptive to stories about physical trauma than they are to understanding why sometimes I am just not myself.

Almost dying triggered a lot of my anxiety, but to be fair, there were many other factors. My GAD has been bubbling under the surface of a lifetime of anxiety, and where it comes from is not a simple answer. It just is what it is. It’s nobody’s fault. Mental illness isn’t that simple.

GAD has pushed me to my limits and pulled me inward too, both of which were necessary to heal. And I wouldn’t change a thing. When you learn to love yourself, to know who you are, you recognize your triggers and forgive yourself for not living up to an ideal that simply wasn’t you.

The stigma ends. Courage blooms. Compassion grows.

If I’ve learned anything this past year it’s that we never really know what’s going on in someone else’s life, yet we are so fast to judge. If only we stopped thinking it was any of our business and extended friendship over criticism. When we accept that mental illness is just as common as cancer, and every bit as much a fight to survive, then maybe we can practice compassion and recognize that health is health – mental, physical, spiritual. You can’t have one without the other.

If you were an alcoholic, I would say get help. If you had diabetes, I would say take your insulin and check your blood. If you had cancer I would say get treatment. If you had a cut that was bleeding, I’d say get a Band-Aid. The same is true for all mental health issues, minor or severe. Even broken bones can mend. You are not broken. Sickness isn’t shame; ignorance is.

Mental health issues are not about attention seeking or selfish behaviour. And I assure you; it’s not a choice. End the stigma now.