Changing Attitudes on Mental Illness, an interview with Joseph Dimitry | By Ashlee Yang

Joseph Dimitry was a University of Alberta Medical student in the Class of 2015, when addiction took hold of the steering wheel and changed his life completely. Mental health illness affects people from all walks of life.  It’s not easy to talk about, but it is an important conversation to start. By speaking up, we can take a step further in eliminating the stigma surrounding mental health illness.  Here is Joseph’s powerful story.

When did you first realize you suffered from a mental health illness?

JD: I knew I had a problem with drug addiction since I was sixteen. The problem with drug and alcohol addiction is that not many people talk about it. How long did I know I had a “mental illness”? I would say only about a month before I went into treatment. I went a physician for an unrelated incident. With the way I looked and presented myself, the doctor just knew that I wasn’t a regular medical student. Before I left the office, he told me that having addiction is not your fault. It’s an illness, and you are sick. Now, I’m coming up on being two years clean.

How did it affect your life as a medical student?

JD: I’m a repeat medical student now in the Class of 2017.  When I was first in medical school two years ago, I ended up having to take time off. In active addiction, I was a much worse person. I was arrogant, egotistical, and mean to other people. I wasn’t a compassionate person at all. Now that I’ve been through the struggles that a lot of patients go through, I am a lot more compassionate, understanding and less judgmental.  Overall, my experience has made me a more insightful person, and it will make me a much better physician in the future.

Is the university equipped with the resources to help students dealing with mental illness?

JD: I can’t speak for the university as a whole, but I can speak for the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry. They are fully equipped to help someone, but only after the student admits to having that illness. You can’t force someone to get help if they are not ready to get help. If somebody is open about their addiction and if someone is willing to get the help they need to get better, then they will help you. They know that mental illness affects 15% of the population – that is not a small amount by any means.

What was the biggest challenge in dealing with a mental health illness?

JD: Addiction is the one disease a lot of people hate you for having. People don’t realize that it’s actually not a choice. The biggest challenge was having to go out and get help on my own, having to get clean alone, and only receiving the support after I got clean.

How did the stigma in society around mental health affect your recovery?

JD: I think the stigma was the biggest thing preventing me from getting help early on. Addiction is always touted as something that only happens to weak people or people who do bad things. Those who are affected by addiction are not good people. I almost felt like I would be punished for my addiction by getting kicked out of medical school. If society accepted addiction as an illness fully and it was as easy to talk about as a broken leg, it would have been much easier for me to get help. I wouldn’t have been so full of guilt and shame, spiraling myself into a worse situation.

At what point did you feel comfortable speaking up about your mental health struggles?

JD: I didn’t feel comfortable speaking up for a while, even after I got clean. I knew nothing good came out of keeping it a secret. I was lying to my friends about why I couldn’t go for a drink, not even telling them I had gone to treatment. I just disappeared off the face of the planet for four months. Eventually, it just got really tiring to hide who I am. I’m proud to be a recovering addict now because it made me a better person. Addiction is a lifelong disease. Now I’m really open about it to everybody.

How did becoming open about your illness impact your life and the people around you?

JD: I felt very embarrassed about having a mental illness. Once I became open, I realized that a lot of the people I was hiding my illness from were the only people I never needed to hide if from in the first place. They were my best friends – one of them is now my girlfriend. After I told them, they became even more supportive of me.

Is that why you got involved with Mental Health Awareness Week (March 24-28, 2014)?

JD: I want to educate people and get rid of the stigma around mental health. I want to see the day when a person can go up to everyone they know and tell them they have addiction as easily as if they were to say, “Damn, I have a broken leg, I’ve got to get a cast!”

What is your best advice for someone dealing with addiction?

JD: It takes somebody to hit a certain point before they get help.

I have two pieces of advice. One is to seek help from the people you love and the people closest to you because they won’t abandon you. They might not know the right things to say, but that’s okay because not everyone is educated on this subject.  Just having that feeling of support from another human being is huge in progressing to getting treatment.

The other piece of advice is the only proven treatment for addiction has been and always will be a twelve-step program. You have to seek that out and see if it works for you.

What sort of advice would you give to us in supporting someone who is suffering from addiction?

JD: I think the hardest thing is to suffer in silence. Reach out compassionately, and don’t force anything on them. Addiction is a difficult disease to deal with. You can’t reason with it and talk to it. It doesn’t listen to logic. It’s a disease that masks itself as the person choose his actions, but the person is not actually doing the choosing at all – the disease is. Sometimes you may think you are approaching the person, but you are actually approaching the disease. Do what you can. My biggest piece of advice would be to tell that person that you are there when they are ready to get help.

Inspired by Joseph’s story?

Learn more about mental health by attending Mental Health Awareness Week from March 24-28, 2014.

Mental Health Awareness Week is a University of Alberta medical student initiative spearheaded by Medical Students for Mental Health Awareness. Events during the week include a lunchtime speaker series, a booth-fair, and evening events. Their mission is to provide education and resources to students and community members at large, and more importantly, to work towards eliminating the stigma of mental illness.

Visit the Facebook event for more details:

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