Molly Schoo suffered in silence for almost a decade, only discussing her personal pain with her parents, siblings, medical professionals and a handful of teachers. Even her closest friends barely knew she was battling an eating disorder and depression, despite watching her live through it.
But over the last couple years, with the help of Jack.org, Schoo broke her silence – she doesn’t pull any punches when sharing her story these days.
“I have struggled from mental illness and, if you don’t like that, too bad,” said the energetic second-year Brescia University College student. “I’m not changing that part of my life for you.”
Jack.org is the only national network of young leaders transforming the way people think about mental health issues. The organization was created by the parents of Jack Windeler, a first-year student at Queen’s University struggling with mental illness. Windeler died by suicide in March of 2010.
Talking about her experiences with mental health issues wasn’t always this easy for Schoo. She told friends, and others, she had a doctor’s appointment or a heart condition – anything to explain her absence from school without having to share the real reasons.
Schoo discovered Jack.org at its national Jack Summit in 2012. The group inspired her to raise awareness about a topic close to her heart. She spent a weekend immersed in a room with high school, college and university students – none of whom were embarrassed to talk about mental illness. She never felt the approval to discuss her emotions the way she did that weekend.
“The Jack Summit reminded me I shouldn’t be ashamed of my past hospitalizations. It taught me how to turn my healed pain into wisdom,” Schoo said. “It solidified my progress by showing me I am not my diagnosis. It reminded me of my voice and taught me I have the power to create change within my community and school.”
It wasn’t long before those at Jack.org saw the leadership potential in Schoo, encouraging her take on a more active role – public speaking, to be exact. While not a big fan, and despite the obvious nerves, she felt the time was right.
“Let me tell you something – it went a lot better than I anticipated,” said Schoo, who debuted as a speaker in front of students at Toronto’s Lawrence Park Collegiate Institute. “I’m sure I probably stumbled, but I’m learning that my story doesn’t have to be perfectly conveyed, because the message is so strong in and of itself.
“It was surreal to see a high school so engaged in mental-health advocacy. It really feels great knowing I am contributing to a movement getting rid of the stigma.”
Schoo actually began at Western four years ago, but, through the suggestion of her doctor, left school to address her mental-health needs. Since returning, she has had the occasional awkward moment with other students curious as to why she is older.
“When I first met my roommates, I was now two years older than everyone. They were wondering why is that,” she said. “Where I used to say I had a heart condition, now I simply told them the truth and they responded well. They were very respectful. It’s still hard, and I don’t introduce myself that way, but a lot of people find out with my involvement with Jack.org and I just don’t have as big an issue with it.
“I’m more comfortable talking about that now because I used to be really ashamed of what I was going through. I thought I was different and people would judge me. But I am finding that is not the case.”
Schoo is yet again taking her mental-health advocacy to the next level, leading a charge to create a Jack.org chapter at Western. She hopes to receive ratification from the University Students’ Council next month.
“I’m not expecting there to be formal meetings, just opportunities to get together and talk about mental health – reach out to people who may not be aware,” Schoo said. “The message is ‘five in five.’ One-in-five people suffer from mental illness; but 5-in-5 are affected. We want the four-of-five to know how to be aware and take care of the one-in-five.”
Jack.org has helped immensely, she added, giving her another reason to see her struggles turning into something positive.
“We want everyone to take care of their mental health as much as their physical health,” Schoo said. “When you go to the doctor we don’t want you to just ask about your heart rate; ask about your mind.
“For so long, I struggled and felt I was never going to recover. Now that I am in such a good place mentally, I like being able to tell people, who are like I was and think they’ll never recover, that it’s possible. “