Student born into fight for mental health awareness

Deana Ruston calls herself a fighter. In fact, she is proudly sporting a new tattoo on her forearm these days, one that reads, You’ve been a fighter since the beginning; keep fighting.

The Health Sciences student, going into her third year at Western this fall, started dealing with anxiety when she was just 13 and in Grade 7. Pervasive and irrational worries – mostly about the safety and well-being of her dad – seemed to only grow, and eventually, they led to her parents seeking counseling.

For some time afterward, Ruston thought she was on the mend.

“I thought things were getting better, but then I arrived at Western. When I got to Western, I thought it (the anxiety) would magically disappear because I wasn’t at home, so I couldn’t worry about things,” she said. “I was good for the first month or two. But then the reality of it all set in and everything started to come back in November.

“I decided to get help at the end of the first school year.”

With guidance from mindyourmind, a London-based youth initiative promoting mental health awareness, Ruston reached out to FEMAP (First Episode Mood and Anxiety Program), offered through London Health Sciences Centre. She started seeing a psychiatrist regularly for her anxiety and mild depression and has been doing better ever since.

This is why she’s so happy to be volunteering with mindyourmind, having started working with the organization in October 2011, shortly after arriving at Western.

The organization, which recently received regular annualized funding of $360,000 from the provincial government, encourages youth to “reach out, get help, give help.” It doesn’t provide direct services on its own, but pools available resources and promotes awareness of them while encouraging youth who have experienced a metal health crisis to speak out and share their stories, thereby helping others.

Ruston spoke at the press conference, where Health Minister Deb Matthews announced the funding, eager to share her story of reaching out for help and overcoming her anxiety.

“Sharing my story has been really important, too,” she said. “It adds a lot, and at first I was nervous about that, but it’s good that you don’t have to hide it anymore. It helps me feel empowered, and feeling like I’m able to make a difference in those around me. Everyone has a story.”

She contributes to mindyourmind by writing on the website blog, helping to design promotion tools and by sharing resources on Twitter. Ruston has also shared her story in a public-service announcement that aired on MTV, CTV and MuchMusic.

Her newest project is helping to create a mobile application and paper resources for youth and adults who use the emergency room in times of a mental health crisis. The initiative is a partnership between mindyourmind and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

“It’s for figuring out why they go to the emergency room, what they want to use there, what caused them to go there, what they can expect when they get there, figuring out alternative services they can use,” Ruston explained.

“When you’re in a mental health crisis, it’s not always easiest to remember what medications you’re on, who your family doctor is, all that kind of stuff. There will be a Q & A option you can fill out in the waiting room so when you finally see a doctor, it can all be done.”

As for her new tattoo, Ruston is proud to show it, noting its mention of being a fighter from the start refers to her being born 25 weeks premature – weighing just a pound and three quarters and staying in the NICU for more than four months. Her will to continue fighting refers to her battle with anxiety.

To those dealing with anxiety or other mental health concerns, Ruston has words of advice: Reach out for help as soon as you notice symptoms. It’s nothing to be ashamed of; you are not alone and help is readily available.