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Why a supportive community has been vital for my mental health

By Jenn Shenouda-Levine • April 02, 2019Big Ideas

As a self-professed word nerd, I often find the most beautiful words roll off the tongue like music and are also infused with great significance.

The word flourish, meaning to “grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as the result of a particularly congenial environment” (Oxford Dictionary) is exactly that kind of word. It recently came up during a work meeting, and I wrote flourish down in bold letters on a neon yellow post-it note that I’ve kept with me at my desk ever since.

Whenever I take a moment to catch my breath during the daily work grind, I look down at my post-it and think about what it means to me, and what it might mean to our high-pressured society in general. More specifically, I ask myself whether people flourish all by themselves, or does it really take a village to help you to reach your full potential?

While I think the answer varies from person to person, I can tell you that feeling connected to others has been essential to my mental health. As someone who has suffered from anxiety and depression for most of my life, I’ve learned that surrounding myself with people who are supportive is vital to both my personal and professional success.

"Does it really take a village to help you to reach your full potential?"

When I graduated a little under a decade ago, I was at a very low point in my life. It didn’t make much sense, as I had done quite well at journalism school and made plenty of friends. To outsiders, I was reaching a milestone in my life, but inside, I felt like a huge imposter. Sure, I posed for pictures with my friends in our long robes and caps and flashed a bright smile as we leapt in the air. But somewhere deep down, where my depression had long taken root, I told myself I’d never “make it”. My brain was feeding me the cruelest of lies, telling me that no matter what I did with my future, I’d fail.

I wonder how many of you have felt the same way, as if there were two versions of yourself: One that tries to lift you up, even if it’s like lugging a rock up a steep cliff, and the other waiting at the top just to push you back down. Sometimes it feels like flourishing is a lifetime away. But we humans can be as stubborn in our ability to hope as we are in our own self-sabotage.

What’s changed the most for me since I’ve graduated is the intricate and interconnected support system I’ve been lucky enough to surround myself with. And I use the word lucky on purpose, as many of my lifelines seemed to manifest at my lowest and most anxious points like some sort of mental health holy grail, while many people have had to fight through the darkness alone.

"These days my version of 'making it' has a lot less to do with climbing up the corporate ladder, and more with what sort of balance I have in my life."

I’m not saying that I haven’t advocated ferociously for my own mental health, but that many people—my therapist, coworkers, fellow support group attendees, family and friends—they are the village that keeps me grounded and allows me to flourish. These days my version of “making it” has a lot less to do with climbing up the corporate ladder, and more with what sort of balance I have in my life. The questions I’m asking myself now are “What boundaries have I set for myself? Who do I choose to spend my time with and my efforts on?”

Have you had the chance to reflect on the communities that impact your own life? Who is on your list of essential people that motivate and inspire you? Are they your mentors, your parents, your boss, your neighbours? Finding your people isn’t always easy. You often must overturn quite a few stones to get to a place where you feel like you are safe to be the version of yourself that most aligns with your values. But I dream that we are all able to get there, not only for our personal health but for our collective wellness.

A tiny post-it note waits for me each day at my desk. Behind it: a decade of searching for the kind of balance that would make me confident enough to pursue my dreams. Ahead of it: the realization that I may go through more ups and downs on this path to wellness and self-discovery. But in my moments of self-doubt, I remind myself even just the small act of calling a friend or speaking in confidence to a coworker about a hard day I’ve had can totally change my outlook. I remind myself that I can return the same favour by always having my ears and heart open to them as well. Because community is give-and- take, and I believe we’ve all got plenty to give.

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