Growing up, I wasn’t the kind of kid that was introduced by a long list of impressive accomplishments. Nor was I the kind the of kid that got to speak at the International Youth Day event at the United Nations in front of a room of inspiring individuals from around the world. I was the girl who no one remembered, blended into the crowd and was so shy that often times people forgot I was there.
So when I took my place next to the UN Secretary-General on August 12, 2014 to speak about “why mental health matters”, you might be wondering what changed.
I still have a hard time believing the story about how I got there. Growing up, I always knew I was different. I always felt sad, weird and alone. As I got older, I hoped and prayed that this feeling would go away. I was so ashamed of how I was feeling I shut everyone out. I was angry all the time, not allowing my family or teachers to get close to me. I didn’t make friends, and tried so hard to get through everyday without talking to anyone. Everyone told me it was just a phase of rebellion, and that eventually I would grow out of it.
I kept waiting for that day to come. I imagined that I would just wake up, and all of a sudden feel amazing. It never happened. Instead, it got so much worse. I was upset with myself, feeling like I did not have a reason to be depressed. I started to imagine how much better the world would be without me in it. How my family would be better off, and how my teachers would have an easier job if I weren’t around. How none of my peers would notice me gone. So, at 13 years old, I tried to take my own life.
When I woke up in that hospital room a day later, I was so upset it did not work. But even then, with the severity of what I had done blatantly obvious, I still did not want to talk about it. I did not want to admit I needed help. I felt broken and out of control.
That is until one day, I caught a lady’s eye while watching TV. She kept looking at me, eventually making me feel really uncomfortable. After about 20 minutes, she walked over, grabbed my hand and placed something inside of it. In a soft and caring voice she said “From one crazy person to another, you will need this”. As she walked away, I slowly opened my hand and saw a necklace with the word hope on it. Hope was something I had not lived with since I was a very small child hoping for my mom to pick me up from daycare. As I stared at the necklace, a woman came by in a panic and said, “ Have you seen my mom’s hope necklace? She is a patient here and is giving away her stuff!” I gave back the necklace, but the message of hope stuck with me.
If I am going to live, I have to have something to hope for. Something I want to do, see or accomplish. I chose to watch my little listen graduate from high school. With that, I started talking to doctors, therapists, nurses, family and friends. I hadn’t told anyone, but once I started talking, it felt amazing that at least someone knew.
After finally sharing my story, I went and got help. I saw so many other people who were struggling with the self stigma and silence that crippled me. I thought about that woman in the hospital ward, who saved my life even though she too was sick.
It then dawned on me: people with mental health issues are not weak, they are actually incredibly strong. So strong that they continue living even though their mind has turned into their biggest enemy, often times without ever asking for support in fear of being judged. As a matter of fact, 2 out of 3 people living with a mental health issue will never seek help for it. So many people have died, rather than allowing people to judge them about living with mental health issues.
To me, that wasn’t okay. When therapies, medications and support exist to make this time of your life an easier one, we should not have to face it alone. I wanted to make people understand how strong they were and I wanted to take down the harmful stigma around mental health.
So in October of 2010 ( shortly after my sister's high school graduation) I changed my hope. I hoped to see the world talk about mental health and create loving and supportive environments around those suffering. I shared my story publicly for the first time. I was described as “brave” and “strong” for the first time.
With that first speech, there was a second, then a third. Eventually that anxious, shy girl was on MTV, National News and in newspapers sharing a story I refused to tell anyone. I spent the 10th anniversary of my suicide attempt speaking to over 2000 people at TEDxWaterloo. I was invited to work with my federal government, charities, companies and organizations all over the world to change policies and messages to promote good mental health.
The biggest change, however, was the empowerment I felt. Growing up, I felt a victim of the world around me, unable it change it. Even though I still struggle and don’t always feel like I deserve the attention I have, I now feel a sense of empowerment to change the world around me. I have been able to talk strangers and loved ones out of harming themselves. I have been able to pass the empowerment on to others, so they share their stories
So on August 12th, when I participated in the International Youth Day event at the United Nations Headquarters, I once again aimed to empower people to talk about mental health. To share their stories, even if it's just with one person, so we can all move to create a mentally healthier world.
About the Author:
Alicia Raimundo has been described as a “mental health superhero”, battling serious bouts of anxiety, depression and a suicide attempt since the age of 13. More recently, she used her move to the University of Waterloo as a catalyst to seek help, and eventually, to help others living with mental health issues.