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A happy mind: Battling mental illness

Story and photos by Adrian MacNair

Story and photos by Adrian MacNair

If one were to meet twenty-five-year-old Denise Askin, she is by all accounts a dynamic young entrepreneur. A health and fitness coach who also runs a hair styling business, she sits on the Ladner Business Association’s board of directors.

With her friendly smile, confident speaking voice and vibrant purple hair, you’d probably think Denise is a naturally ebullient person. The fact that a poster in her bedroom reads, “Today I choose happiness” is a personal reminder that yesterday tells a different story.

Denise needs to surround herself with objects, people and animals (like her loving dog, Dixie) to remind herself that hers is a life worth living, despite being diagnosed with a mental illness.

“I remember when I was told that this wasn’t going to go away, that I was going to have to learn to manage it my whole life,” recalls Denise. “And I remember feeling like that’s a life sentence and I was so terrified.”

It was as an adolescent that she began to exhibit signs of mental illness, but in hindsight she says it’s likely there were clues even earlier. Chronic depression, anxiety, panic disorder and other symptoms of mental illness hit her hard when she was in Grade 10.

“For me it was pretty severe. I stopped going to school. I went from having decent grades and no issues to almost being suspended for being late to too many classes.”

This wasn’t just the normal growing pains of a young person. There were clear signs that something was terribly wrong, indicates Denise.

“It’s one thing to be a typical miserable teenager and it’s another for it to significantly impact your quality of life.”
dsc_6804At the age of 15, Denise saw a psychiatrist, who told her parents to immediately take her to BC Children’s Hospital Emergency Psychitric Unit where she stayed for a few days before they released her. She quickly learned that the treatment had been inadequate.

“Two weeks later I went to my mom and I said I’m not OK, I’m not safe in my own body and in my own mind. You need to take me back right now.”

Denise stayed for a few more nights in Vancouver before checking into Surrey Memorial Adolescent Psychiatry Unit, where she lived for three months.

All of the horrible thoughts about her future floated through her brain. Did this mean she could never hold down a job? Would nobody ever come to love her? Would society reject and shun her?

A decade later, Denise is adamant that a diagnosis of mental illness is not a “death sentence.”

“I feel that I’ve recovered significantly from my mental health issues in the last couple of years,” she says. “The point is you have to want to and you have to be willing to do the work because it’s not easy.”

Denise says part of treating mental illness is admitting there’s a problem and facing your fears.

“Recovering to the extent that I have, and to the extent many people do, requires visiting some really ugly, nasty places in your mind that you don’t want to go to.”

One way she began treating herself was by changing her diet and exercising, two things that can have a dramatic effect on one’s mood. As well, Denise says mental illness can be exacerbated by health issues, such an imbalances in iron levels or checking your thyroid, something medical doctors don’t always link together.

Another way she was able to recover from severe depression was reading personal development books, such as The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy and You Are A Badass by Jen Sincero. The books helped her discover her own mental strength to change her happiness.

“I had to realize that I am the only one who can make me happy. I am the only one who has control over my mental health. So I can take the steps to do that if I want to.”

Denise adds that the hardest thing to do was learn to be grateful for the good things in her life. She accomplished that by starting a “gratitude journal”, which she freely admits seemed like “lying” at first. But slowly, she even began to appreciate her own battle with mental illness.

“Going through everything I have been through has made me a more open and dynamic person and I have been able to help so many people. And I don’t think I would be grateful for all of the things I have now if I hadn’t been where I was.”

Earlier this year, Denise became involved in the South Delta Mental Health local action team, recently speaking at Tsawwassen’s South Delta Secondary for a community forum on youth depression and suicide.

Despite public awareness gains in recent years surrounding mental health issues through campaigns like #BellLetsTalk and others, there’s still work to do on public education. Today, Denise draws strength from helping others, by sharing her own stories and demonstrating that a fulfilling and beautiful life is still possible.

“When people approach me and ask for help and share their own stories with me and tell me how my story has inspired them or helped them, that’s been the best reward for everything I’ve been through.”

To contact the Delta Mental Health local action team or for more information email

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