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CAMH Stories Centre for Addiction
and Mental Health

Family Ties - Bridge to Recovery

Quiet, shy, reserved - these are the words Helen heard used to describe her all her life. From a young girl in a noisy classroom to an awkward teenager trying to fit in throughout her high school years, Helen struggled with anxiety for as long as she could remember.

“I noticed my anxiety started in the second grade and it progressively got worse,” says the 23-year-old. She was bullied a lot and by the time she hit high school, “it was really bad to the point I would rather be by myself than with other people. I just avoided events or places where I knew there would be crowds.”


In Grade 10 she came across the term social phobia when she was doing research for a class assignment. “It matched what I was experiencing,” she remembers. She saw a doctor and was prescribed drugs for her anxiety but stopped taking them soon afterwards.

Helen’s voice tremors when she talks about the pain of not fitting in and her internal struggle with anxiety. “I had uncomfortable feelings being around large groups of people. My face turned red when I spoke and I just felt really anxious,” she remembers. She avoided public speaking and tried to mask her discomfort. “One of the most difficult things for me was doing presentations so I chose to do PowerPoint presentations so the lights could be turned off so they couldn’t see my face turn red,” she says.

Many people are afraid talking to large groups or attending parties with strangers, says CAMH clinical psychologist, Dr. Katy Kamkar. “But while most can overcome that discomfort to pursue the experience and enjoy themselves, people with anxiety experience feelings that are excessive where they avoid contact, avoid school or work and that contributes to a lack of self-confidence, self-worth and self-esteem.”

Starting university should have been an exciting time but for Helen, it was anything but. Moving from a Toronto suburb to Ottawa, she tried to fit into university life. “My parents saw a change in me but I still didn’t see there was anything wrong,” she says. But then she had a psychotic episode. Her family reached out and brought her home where she saw a crisis team and stayed overnight at the hospital.

“I didn’t want to see anyone, period. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me. But it’s something that continued to cause me problems,” Helen recalls. She was prescribed drugs but refused to take them so her family finally convinced her to go to the emergency department at CAMH. And it was a social worker who finally got through to her. “She made me realize that if I wanted a full life, then I would need to take them (medications). I am no longer suffering from psychosis because of her,” Helen says.

Over 70 per cent of those with anxiety disorders experience onset in the younger years - in childhood and adolescence. When people go through life-changes or transitions, they are at greater risk of experiencing mental health problems, says Dr. Kamkar. And the transition from high school can be a particularly vulnerable time “because positive stressors can still put people at risk of becoming overwhelmed, and experiencing feelings of helplessness and powerlessness which significantly affect social and personal relationships and academic performance.”

With coaxing from her family, Helen continued to seek medical help and was diagnosed with social anxiety. After her psychosis, she also began to show symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder. “I had repetitive thoughts, negative things and I just couldn’t stop them from swimming around in my head,” she said.

Helen’s close-knit family rallied to support her. “I’m grateful to my parents,” she says. “They didn’t understand it at first because they don’t know anyone who has this problem and no one in my family has a mental illness but they’ve been so supportive since the first time they took me to the hospital. I couldn’t have survived this without my family.”

She credits her sister for insisting she see a psychiatrist and her brother who is a pharmacy student, for educating her about her medications. She is currently on medication for her OCD and anxiety. After seeking help, Helen has returned to university to study criminology and works a part-time job. “It took some time to get the right medication and find the right dosage but it has made such a big difference in my life,” she shares.

She admits there are times she still struggles but she has found the help and support she needs. “I’m going out with friends, with my parents grocery shopping and I’m able to go to school again,” she says. “There were so many hardships I had to overcome but I know I’ll be fine with the support of my family and my friends. That gives me a lot more confidence for the future.”

Click here for more on Helen’s story in her own words.

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