By Thomas Becker
There's no denying her infectious smile. When she walks in a room, it instantly lights up. But what people don't know is that light can often dim to a flutter, or that's what her mind tries to make her believe.
Jane McLaughlin suffers from manic depression disorder, a mental illness that causes periods of depression and periods of elevated mood. Mental health affects us all, and for people like McLaughlin a "normal" day can quickly take a detour to the frightening unknown, where the mind seizes control and doesn't let go.
It's a lot to handle for anyone, especially a student-athlete who's become a valued member of UPEI's nursing program and the Panthers basketball team. Throw in a social life, an unpaid internship and mental health issues and suddenly the juggling act becomes a nightmare to navigate through.
With the Bell Let's Talk campaign, which promotes raising awareness and opening the dialogue on mental illness, stories like McLaughlin's rise to the surface as a symbol of hope and unity for our own mental wellbeing.
Like many kids, the growing pains of childhood – from bullying to familial issues – play a big factor in the people we become and what's carried with us without even knowing it. For McLaughlin it was only the beginning of an uphill climb.
"As a kid, I had to deal with a lot and my reactions to situations were very different from other kids," she said. "My brain was constantly erratic. I'd go from feeling high to low in seconds and it was hard on my mother."
While some still suffer in silence, McLaughlin had to learn to love the person she is and has yet to become. And by sharing her story she hopes someone in a similar position can realize their worth too and through it, fight this epidemic together.
"I'm becoming proud of who I am," the 22-year-old said. "I'm confident enough about myself to open up about my struggles."
The inner demon rises and love to conquer it
In her sophomore year at UPEI, things started to deteriorate fast and she made the tough decision to step away from the sport she loves to care for herself.
"This goes out to parents reading this, the pressure of sports just isn't worth compromising your health."
Obsessive thoughts began to plague her mind and suicide suddenly became a viable option. Her mind cycled through endless scenarios that resulted in only one outcome.
Why would a young woman with so much ahead of her have such troubling thoughts? That's the thing. The mind doesn't care. The inner demon lies dormant until it's ready to rear its ugly head. And when it does, the walls begin to close in on you, she explained.
"I thought about it a lot and had a plan in place. It was the only time in my life where I felt like I wanted die," she said. "I felt done. Every little thing was too much."
But there was hope.
A single thought of love overshadowed everything and turned the tides for a desperate McLaughlin. The thought was of her mother, Joanne, and how she couldn't leave behind an empty space in her mother's heart that could never be replaced.
"I couldn't do that to my mom, I didn't want her to suffer too," McLaughlin said.
"Unit 9" – my safe haven
Following a visit with her psychiatrist in February of 2015, it was clear that serious action was needed. The psychiatrist's secretary drove her to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and waited with her until a doctor was ready to see her.
She stayed in the psychiatric ward for two weeks as she began to recover from her illness. The psychiatric ward often goes by the moniker "Unit 9" (you may have heard of it) which carries a stigma and at times is even joked about, McLaughlin said.
How many units are in the QEH and what is each unit for? If you don't know you've proven the point. Why is "Unit 9" singled out?
For her, it was a safe haven where she didn't have to worry (as much) about the lies her mind was telling. And as a bonus, she made a few friends along the way, people who know what it's like to endure the peeks and valleys of mental illness.
"If I ever needed to go back there for help, I would."
It's nothing like in the classic 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, or the 2010 psychological thriller, Shutter Island. It's a safe place with professionals who work tirelessly to help those who need it.
"They treat your mental health need like a medical need. To them it's no different."
Finding the right formula
For McLaughlin, her brief stay changed her perspective on her illness and helped her learn about the valuable resources at her disposal. The trick is discovering a formula that best suits the individual, which could include a series of medications and/or different forms of therapy.
But that's just a start. McLaughlin is a firm believer that relationships play a vital role in one's mental health, be it positive or negative.
"Relationships are absolutely important. If you can open up to just one person you trust, that can be the difference in saving your life," she said. "If you're close to someone with a mental illness, try not to let them down. Your love and support is sometimes all they need."
To this day, her mother Joanne has been her beacon of hope. She has her mother's name tattooed on her left ankle as a reminder of the strength of their bond.
As a result of her own daughter's experiences, Joanne's even part of mental health boards to help parents whose children struggle with mental illness.
"She's my backbone. Even if she doesn't understand what's going on in my head, she's still always there," McLaughlin said. "She sees my fight, and she's hurting too, but she's always been strong enough to support me and my family and love me unconditionally."
That kind of support coupled with medical care she requires gave her a renewed sense of energy and purpose, paving the way back to UPEI and its basketball program.
She sports another tattoo on her neck that she got shortly after leaving the hospital with the words "miles to go." But she never had the courage to tell anyone what it meant, until now. It comes from a Robert Frost poem and means miles to go before I sleep. In her darkest hour all seemed lost, but those words carry great meaning for her now.
"Before I got real treatment, I thought I wouldn't make it past my 21st birthday. But I'm here and I have miles and miles to go before I sleep."
McLaughlin began to thrive in the nursing program and is working on her preceptorship as she aims for a career as a midwife. She also became a leader of the women's basketball team and averaged a career-high 10.7 points per game in 2015-16. She shares the captaincy role with her teammate and close friend, Kiera Rigby, in whom she confided in a year later.
"She's just always fun-loving and there for me."
McLaughlin's not close with many people, but the connection she formed with Rigby has helped in the healing process.
"It's good to know that I have people I can count on. She's like my blood," she said. "We're together forever."
Bell Let's Talk
On Jan. 31, McLaughlin is teaming up with 20,000 other student-athletes from across U Sports to raise awareness and broaden the conversation on mental health.
According to the Bell Let's Talk website, last year's campaign raised $6.6 million through messages of support, bringing the total to $86.5 million since its inception in 2010. By 2020, that figure is expected to eclipse $100 million, all in the name of fighting mental health stigma and giving voices to those too afraid to let theirs be heard.
As an ambassador of Bell Let's Talk, McLaughlin is helping to lead the charge for the big day when all of Canada joins forces to fight for the cause.
"It's a day to recognize that even if you feel isolated and alone, you're not," she said. "There are millions of people living, battling and thriving with their illness and we can find comfort knowing it's normal and there are ways to get help."
To help raise money for the cause, McLaughlin encourages everyone to go on their mobile devices on Jan. 31 and join the millions of voices fighting back against mental illness. For each interaction (mentioned below), Bell will donate five cents to Canadian mental health programs.
But it doesn't end there.
"It needs to be clear that this is only one day of the year, but we have to remember that mental health impacts all of us each and every day."
Wednesday, Jan. 31 is #BellLetsTalk day:
– Every text message, mobile and long distance call made by Bell Canada, Bell Aliant and Bell MTS customers.
– Twitter: Each view of their Bell Let's Talk Day video or tweet using #BellLetsTalk and
– Facebook: Each view their Bell Let's Talk Day video or use the Bell Let's Talk Facebook frame,
– Instagram: Each view of their Bell Let's Talk Day video
– Snapchat: Each view their Bell Let's Talk Day video or send a snap using the Bell Let's Talk filter