Life in Balance

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The Toronto Star: Helping Fellow Students Cope with Anxiety

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Emily Aubé wants to help fellow students cope with anxiety

Emily Aubé found dealing with mental issues got easier with support, so she formed an online group where peers could share advice and stories.


For years after her first episode at age seven, Emily Aubé of Barrie couldn’t explain why she kept feeling like she was about to die.

Then, at age 12, when she was diagnosed with panic disorder and generalized anxiety, she finally understood. But that didn’t make it any easier.

“I was in high school, so it was a difficult time. You’re getting accepted by your peers, and I didn’t want people to think, ‘Emily’s crazy.’ And I also didn’t want my teachers giving me any special attention, or people to think I was using anxiety as a cop-out.”

She hid that side of herself for years. When she decided to slowly open up about it on her personal blog each year on Bell Let’s Talk Day, she was met with support from her friends and classmates, rather than shame.

As she came to understand and control her own anxiety, Aubé wanted to help others do the same.

“I did therapy for years and years. I saw psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers. I’ve done it all,” says the 19-year-old Ryerson journalism student. “The only thing that ever really helped me was bringing in that love aspect — the higher power, following your heart — and I really just want to share that with everybody.”

Aubé created the Anxiety Free Community, ( an online support group and info source. Users can read up about anxiety, share their stories, or ask for one-on-one support. So far, most of the site’s users have found it through mutual friends with the help of social media.

She is also writing a book detailing her experiences called Love Before Fear, which will be published by Balboa Press this fall.

Aubé is far from alone. The Canadian Mental Health Association estimates that more than 18 per cent of Canadians aged 15 to 24 may have a mental health disorder “that severely disrupts their ability to function at home, in school, or in their community.”

When it comes to academic impacts — conditions that hurt students’ grades or force them to drop a course, for example — a 2013 American College Health Association survey found that 30 per cent of Ontario post-secondary students are negatively affected by anxiety, and 19 per cent by depression.

That also means the drugs used to treat those problems are often the most popular among students.

Green Shield Canada, a health insurer that provides plans for students at Ryerson, the University of Toronto and others, finds antidepressants are the third most commonly used category of prescription drugs for Canadians aged 11 to 20, and second for those aged 21 to 30. In both age groups, contraceptives rank number one.

Studentcare Networks, which insures more than 650,000 students in 73 student associations in Canada, also finds antidepressants are the most commonly claimed prescription category, or a close second to contraception, depending on the student group.

Aubé doesn’t talk much about pharmaceuticals when she gives advice — though she doesn’t discredit them.

“I do believe in medication . . . but I also think it’s kind of a Band-Aid,” she says. “You do have to go deeper into what is causing your anxiety to heal it. You can’t just forego all that emotional recovery by taking medication. With both together, it works very well.”

The Anxiety Free Community allows users to submit their own stories anonymously if they wish. Aubé says reading about other people’s experiences helped her come to terms with her anxiety, and hopes the same can happen for her followers.

Ann Marie MacDonald, executive director of the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario, says there’s an important balance to be found between medical and non-medical treatment, and peer support like what Aubé offers is a big part of that.

“The ability for someone to use their journey and provide a narrative to that is so key,” says MacDonald. “If you’re able to hear someone’s story of what they’ve gone through, and that at the other end there’s hope, that is so important for people to heal and recover.”

Brendan Melanson, 20, of Cavendish, P.E.I. was able to overcome his fears with Aubé’s help. He heard about her website through a friend’s Facebook post. He shared his problems with her and learned it sounded like he had social anxiety disorder. A visit to his doctor confirmed it.

Aubé suggested Melanson try affirmations. Not long after, he went to his college at Halifax Community College and came across his worst nightmare: a room packed with people. But the affirmations have worked.

“A million things would run through my mind of possible bad scenarios, things that could go wrong,” he says. “The tips that she gave me have changed my life. I’m so much more outgoing and in the zone. I can’t even find the words to describe the difference.”

Aubé says if people are just able to acknowledge that a solution is out there, it’s a good start.

“Believe in the fact that you can save yourself from it,” she says. “It’s simple, but that’s the message.”

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