Double majoring in psychology and criminology, double minoring in human rights and French, founder and co-president of the STU Mental Health Society, and working three jobs—Ashley Thornton isn’t exactly what you picture when you imagine mental illness.
But Thornton isn’t just battling one mental illness, she’s living with five.
A Dean’s List student studying on a full-scholarship at St. Thomas University, the 19-year-old says it’s just a veneer.
“I’ve had to show you my life through rose tinted glasses, kind of like a highlight reel as we would on social media,” said Thorton.
Thornton spoke about her struggles with Depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder at the STU Mental Health Society’s event, “Elephant in the Room.” The event took place on Jan. 29 in the STU Kinsella Auditorium.
“I can’t even count how many times I have left my classes to go have panic attacks in the washroom and come out completely composed and my classmates would never expect a single thing,” said Thornton.
She and six other speakers spoke at the event about their experiences with mental health. Provincial Green Party leader and Fredericton MLA David Coon was also present to discuss mental health services in the area.
Patrice Cammarano, co-president of the society, spoke first on harm that can be done to mental health as a result of athletic success; Delaney Bonvie, founder of Wolf Pack For Life Apparel, spoke on being an entrepreneur while struggling with mental illness; and Thornton spoke on the stigma surrounding high-functioning mental illnesses.
Alain Duguay was a former support worker, peace officer, and case manager, and he spoke on assisting people with mental illness as a career and caring for yourself in the process; Ceilah Keats from the Thomas Keats Organization talked about losing her brother to suicide and dealing with grief in your own way; Claire Leighton, STU Mental Health Society Wellness Coordinator, talked about living with multiple mental illnesses that can interact and worsen.
Leighton said the event was the first time she had openly shared her story about her comorbid disorders.
In honour of the event, Leighton got a tattoo on her forearm.
“It's a heart with the word purpose underneath because I've decided that my purpose is to wear my heart on my sleeve,” she said. “And now when I see this, I'm going to remember this first opportunity I had to really, really practice that—which was horrifying.”
The psychology major talked about her battle with her five illnesses over the last ten years and all of the different methods she tried to manage them. She tried research, expensive dieticians, new exercise methods and every coping strategy available, to minimal success.
“I lost my ability to keep up. I felt like every rule I made contradicted the other,” Leighton said. “And the biggest contradiction of all was that trying so hard to help myself was what was hurting me the most.”
After trying everything, Leighton discovered that the biggest thing was control, as long as she could take a bad day and make it better by planning a good day, then she could balance it. Her personal experience helps with her position as wellness coordinator, she can give tips and suggestions rooted in her past.
“It is many, many, many years in the making.”