THE BLOG

Mental Illness Does Not Define Who I Am

27/10/2014 17:35 GMT | Updated 27/12/2014 10:59 GMT

When I posted a blog about mental health discrimination and stigma about six months back, I'll admit that my experience with it was pretty limited. I'd experienced the odd sideways glance, some people were extra sensitive to my feelings, I was occasionally told to 'man up' or 'cheer up', but I never experienced what I believed was out right discrimination.

That's why, when I recently applied for a position in a summer camp in Canada for next year, I had no worries that my mental health issues would in any way impact my application. Having briefly touched down there last year whilst waiting for a transfer flight, I've since wanted to visit so I was pretty quick to fill out the application form through Camp America, so that I could do so whilst earning money to travel.

About a month ago, I received a reply which, in the short form, said that the company was unable to take my application further based on the information about my mental health that I had disclosed in my application.

Based upon the information that you have provided, we may not be able to move further with your application this year. I know this news is disheartening but please allow me to explain the reason behind this decision.

Firstly let me state that Camp Canada in no way discriminates against anyone with mental health problems. However, in the past, the camps that we work with have taken on counsellors who have had a recent history of anxiety or other emotional problems and there have been some incidents that have caused the Canadian/American government to change their policies on the cultural exchange visa. Therefore, our camps are changing their application rules.

This means that camps in Canada will not hire applicants who have suffered from any mental or emotional disorders within the past two years. This is because this experience is also a job, and you would be responsible for the welfare of children throughout the day. Though the experience is fun and fulfilling, it is also tough. You will be in an unfamiliar environment and away from everything you know. Camp directors want to make sure their staff are capable of dealing with this and can keep the children safe.

The application asked me if I had ever had mental health issues. I answered the question honestly, making it clear that I had previously been diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder but that I was physically and mentally fit to travel and work at the time. I was slightly concerned about disclosing the information, but I felt safer being truthful, and believed that it wouldn't be an issue.

When I read the response, I was obviously a bit upset that my application wasn't being taken any further. I completely understand the company's need for a policy, but the fact that I was being labelled as someone who was incapable of dealing with change, or unable to take responsibility for children's welfare based on an illness I was deemed to have recovered from upset me all the more. It made me feel foolish for ever being honest and annoyed at myself for ever being unwell. Things I really shouldn't have to feel.

The tone of the email upset me even more. I am fully aware that the experience is also a job. I am fully aware of the responsibilities and fully aware that it isn't something to be taken lightly. It annoys me that based on this experience, I'm unlikely to want to apply for this again, even when I have passed the two year mark. Why should I want to when I'm going to doubt myself and not feel trusted throughout the whole thing?

I don't believe that I'm incapable of looking after children, seeing as I've done so for much of my life with brothers and a sister all younger than me. If the company had asked, they would know that I studied abroad for a month last year whilst I was suffering with mental health issues, and that I coped considerably well in the situation. If I had any doubts about my ability to cope with the programme, I wouldn't have even considered filling out an application. I know my limits.

Personally, I think that having depression has made me a stronger and perhaps a healthier person. It's provided me with the skills to empathise and care for all types of people, and to deal with high pressured situations - situations, incidentally, that I'm sure I would face as a camp counsellor at a summer camp. Mental health discrimination was always something I feared facing before I came out of my mental health closet, but I never imagined my mental health issues would come back to haunt me when it came to the work place, especially when I was through the worst of my illness.

My mental health history really doesn't change who I am as a person. I am a 21-year-old woman who had depression, not a depressed woman. And, even though it doesn't sound like it, there's a big difference between the two. My mental health does not make up all of me. I am much, much more than an illness, and this summer camp is going to miss out on all of who I really am. I am not going to let an illness define me, and I'm not going to let anyone else define me in that way either.