How to be an Advocate for Women’s Mental Health
‘Shalyn Isaacs shows how personal experiences with depression, self-esteem and anxiety can be used to empower women with the group Women’s Mental Health Talks.’
The first year of the student-led Women’s Mental Health Talks (WMHT) had an overwhelming amount of success at York University. The success indicates the need for open-spaces for women to share their thoughts, struggles and feelings. Shalyn Isaacs (third year Psychology student), the founder of WMHT had her own struggles with self-esteem, anxiety and depression. After overcoming her personal demons, Isaacs started a group for women to find their voice as well.
HA: What is your experience with mental health ?
SI: My mental health and overall well-being was negatively impacted in my teenage years due to bullying. I was a very sensitive child with a passive and quiet personality. I would slip into the background but silently ached for validation and acceptance. I found it difficult to stand up for myself. The bullying began in elementary school and continued in high school (where it got really bad). I was also involved in unhealthy relationships that were both romantic and platonic in nature. The dynamics within these relationships were painful. I went through years of feeling depressed, experiencing low self-esteem and social anxiety. By my first year of university, I avoided social exchanges, outings, or friendships of any kind. The first year of university is where you’re supposed to step outside of your comfort zone, go to parties, have fun and meet new people — but having depression, low self-confidence, and anxiety made it very difficult for me to form relationships with those around me.
HA: Was there a turning point in your mental health journey ?
SI: Yes, there was. During my second year in university, I was in a very unhealthy relationship with someone who undermined my worth. I accepted this treatment because that was all I knew. My depression and anxiety were at an all-time high and my grades in school were declining due to my inability to concentrate. I realized that something needed to change. After that relationship ended, I spent some time giving myself the time and attention that I deserved. I began seeing a counsellor. I spent time doing things alone that made me happy and reminded myself that I was a beautiful person worthy of so much goodness in life. I also re-told myself the story of my life which altered my perspective. Rather than seeing the bullies of my past as having so much power over me, and seeing myself as a victim, I now viewed those painful situations and people as circumstances that forced me to grow. This shift in perspective empowered me. Slowly, I began to believe in myself without seeking validation from anyone. By the end of second year (in university), it was a little bit easier to reach out to people and form relationships. I learned how to trust others, and believe that not everyone was out there to hurt or reject me. As the confidence in myself grew, every day I made a conscious effort to step outside of my comfort zone. I began to share my thoughts and opinions openly and unapologetically. I also made an effort to meet people and make friends through volunteering. I now have a couple of good quality relationships around me. The love and support from those relationships has been invaluable to improving my mental health. My mental health is still a journey, and it will probably always be to some extent. For now, I feel like there are nothing but good things ahead of me. Even when difficult situations arise, I am confident that I am more than capable of handling it.
HA : What is Women’s Mental Health Talks and what’s your involvement there?
SI : I am the founder and president of Women’s Mental Health Talks . WMHT is a student-led support group at York University that hosts open-discussion meetings around topics centred around women’s mental health. It is an organization that I started last year with a wonderful team of executive members who have done a phenomenal job of reaching women at York University. We work to create strategies women can use to improve their well-being and relationships. Some examples of discussion meetings we hosted this year included: ‘Strategies for managing Anxiety and Depression’, ‘How to establish Healthy Relationships’, ‘Building Self-Confidence’, ‘Expression and Communication’, and ‘How to have a Positive Body Image’. These support groups serve as opportunities for women to share their experiences in a safe and accepting environment with other women who have faced similar circumstances. In this way, women heal and empower themselves while empowering women around them as well. During our first year, we experienced an overwhelming amount of success. We also collaborated with other clubs at York (such as The Women’s Empowerment Club). It has been a blessing and privilege to witness the growth, support and healing of so many women who attend these discussion meetings.
HA: What are some ways that you protect your mental health?
SI: I write a lot in my journal. My journal is filled with thoughts, realizations, poetry and musings. Writing has always been an art that heals and strengthens me. I also have a strong connection with God and I make time during numerous points throughout my day to ask God for guidance. That has never failed to provide me with an unshakeable strength and belief in myself during times when I was afraid. Prayer and meditation every day helps as well. I still experience anxiety and the occasional anxiety attack, so I use ‘grounding’ techniques to calm me. (Grounding techniques include :) I acknowledge the physical objects and environment around me by using my senses to describe them. An example of this is, “This table is hard and smooth. This coffee smells nice. There is a washroom beside me. This chair is stable and supporting me.” Statements like these bring me back to the present moment and help me to realize that I will be okay. Additionally, maintaining healthy relationships with quality people who love and appreciate me is crucial to maintaining my mental health. Lastly, I do self-affirmations and mirror work. This involves saying phrases to myself while looking in the mirror such as, “I am kind. I am strong. I am smart. I am beautiful. I am loved. I am successful.” As you repeat these messages to yourself repeatedly, you program your subconscious mind to believe it and your life changes in positive ways as a result.
*Previous editions of this article has Shalyn Isaacs last name spelled as “Issacs”. In the third picture with Discussion Director Krystin West, the volunteer was mistakenly listed as former Vice President Jenu Thaya.