Feb. 24, 2021
‘Make space to not be OK, so you have a chance to get better’
The night before a big presentation, Dan Ferguson was overwhelmed with anxiety. Then an undergraduate student at the University of Lethbridge, he was trapped by his thoughts. He called in sick and couldn’t get out of bed for two days. For a week, he avoided speaking to anyone he knew.
Back then, Ferguson was convinced he blew it. Only years later did he understand something much larger was going on. He needed help.
Today, Ferguson is team lead of the Graduate Education Community at UCalgary. A mental health advocate, he’s sharing his experience with mental illness to help break down the stigma and show others they’re not alone.
“It’s a bit worrisome to think that sometimes people are in these situations, where they feel like something isn’t right, but go right to thinking, ‘It’s something wrong with me as a person,’” says Ferguson, who also sits on the communications subcommittee for UCalgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy.
“It’s easy to jump from that to thinking, ‘Maybe it’s my fault, maybe I’m defective.’ But that isn’t the right way to think about it at all. It’s hard to get to the point where you learn to recognize there’s something else going on, and it isn't a character flaw.”
Road to a diagnosis
Ferguson received his first depression diagnosis in 2008, but the road to this diagnosis and understanding the symptoms wasn’t straightforward.
“I think that, in retrospect, depression is something I’ve dealt with a lot longer than the last 10 to 12 years, something I was trying to work through and deal with, without really recognizing what exactly was going on, not having the words to talk about it and seek help,” he says.
Both his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Philosophy degrees gave Ferguson purpose and grounding, but he found himself struggling at times, thinking then that he would just “get in his own way.
“I definitely had stuff going on in my undergrad, but I just wasn’t recognizing it,” Ferguson says. “I wasn’t recognizing my environment might not be the healthiest. And, at times, I felt there was something wrong with me, but just didn’t know what.”
On Ferguson’s path to recognizing and naming his own struggles, he gained valuable insights from those around him.
“I was a campus radio nerd. One day, I was in a mood and went into the station.
One of my friends, who went on to become a neuroscientist, pointed out to me, ‘Oh, so you’re down today? Yesterday you were up.’ He was observing that I had some ups and downs.
“He had just pointed something out to me before I could recognize it in myself,” says Ferguson.
In that moment, Ferguson recalls he was becoming aware. It still took a while for him to seek help through therapy. Now he manages well with medication and counselling and he has also discovered useful tools such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). CBT is a treatment approach that looks to challenge unhelpful or maladaptive thoughts and behaviours.
Ferguson says we’re getting better at talking about mental health and bringing it out of the shadows; talking about it normalizes it.
“Mental illness runs in my family,” he says. “When I was younger, it created a lot of difficulty, in part because it wasn't as easy to talk about. There weren’t supports then like there are now.
“I think we would have had a different experience as a family — if mental illness was easier to recognize and talk about. For that reason, I think it’s important for people to be aware of mental health, to be advocates and champions so we can continue to break down stigma.”
You are not alone
When Ferguson opened up to friends about going on an antidepressant, he found he wasn’t as alone as he thought, and found support in a way he didn’t expect.
“Actually, opening up to friends to let them know I was starting antidepressants, I almost felt late to the party. One of my friends had been on one for years!” he says. “You realize how widespread mental illness can be. There isn’t shame, you wouldn't feel ashamed to have some other long-term physical illness, and mental illness shouldn’t be any different. You are not to blame, and it’s OK not to be OK.”
One of the things that’s tough with depression, when you've lived with it for a long time, is that it can feel normal to you, says Ferguson. “You’ve kind of normalized how it feels to you.
It can be this warm dark cloak that is so familiar. One of the things that’s difficult with that, maybe you need to try to take the cloak off a little bit and try something else.
Ferguson is grateful for loved ones around him who can recognize when something isn’t right. Even though it’s not an easy conversation to have on both fronts, he encourages those to try and be open, to listen and to act.
“My spouse sometimes recognizes when I’m swinging down a little bit,” he says. “She’ll point out, ‘Hey, you’re probably not getting enough exercise right now.’ When you hear that, you can feel defensive, like, ‘This is my normal, I don’t want to get out of this rut…’ But you have to be open to change and open to developing new habits because, a lot of the time, it’s not going to get better if you don't.”
When something doesn’t feel right, be your own advocate
It can be a scary step, reaching out for help with something like this. But Ferguson says it is a really important step.
Whether talking to your doctor, your partner, someone in your life or using one of the many counselling services available, reaching out can be life-changing.
“It’s important to make space to not be OK, so you have a chance to get better,” says Ferguson.
“Everyone I know who works at the university is so dedicated. The thought of letting go of duties and stepping out for a bit can be hard. But the university has lots of support, and it's OK to do it. It takes practice to recognize when things are starting to go off the rails.
“We need to get better at recognizing. If you slope into an episode of high anxiety, or depression, you need space to be able to get better.”
Activities can help improve your mental health
Ferguson took up skateboarding a couple of years ago as a way to get more active. He says he’s not particularly good at it, but he loves it.
“It's amazing what a difference it makes for me if I can incorporate it into my week,” Ferguson says. “I go to the skate park at ‘old man’ hours, where I can feel comfortable and have more space to practice. I can roll around, work up a sweat.
It’s very grounding and centring because you have to be so focused on what you’re doing in the moment.
“You can’t think about other things outside of what you’re doing, because the moment you get distracted, you might eat it. It’s like a meditative thing, but a really vigorous exercise, and it brings me a lot of balance.”
Find your thing. Find something you can be passionate about. Whether you’re great at it or not, it doesn’t matter. As long as it brings you joy, Ferguson says, that’s all that matters.
Need to talk to someone? Support is always available with these UCalgary resources
Faculty and staff
- Staff Wellness: 403-220-2918. A mental health consultant is available by phone or email
- Resources for staff and faculty to navigate uncertainty
- Homewood Health provides 24/7 mental health support; reach them by calling 1-800-663-1142
- Student Wellness Services: 403-210-9355, including remote, in-person, and telephone connections
- Online wellness learning
Support for those at risk of domestic or dating violence
Women’s Resource Centre: Peer support
- Support can be accessible by email and through Zoom/Skype appointments.
Faith and Spirituality Centre
- Learn more about their growing online engagement options
Need to talk to someone now? Use local resources below, available 24/7
Alberta Health Services Mental Health Help Line
This line is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week confidential service that provides support, information and referrals to Albertans experiencing mental health concerns. Call 1-877-303-2642.
Speak to a highly trained volunteer, who will actively listen and provide additional resources if needed. Call 403-266-4357 or visit them online for chat information.
Wood’s Homes Community Resource Team
Connect with someone by calling 403-299-9699 or 1-800-563-6106. Text 587-315-5000 between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m. Find information on no-cost walk-in counselling services.
Homewood Health (for faculty, staff and postdoctoral scholars)
Get immediate crisis support or initiate counselling services by calling 1-800-633-1142 (select option #1 for crisis).
Kid’s Help Phone (for ages five to 29 who need support)
Call, chat or text 24/7. Visit online or call a counsellor at 1-800-668-6868.
More mental health resources
Community Connect YYC
Book affordable barrier-free phone or video counselling sessions.
Join and connect to a clinically moderated online peer-to-peer mental health community. Free to Albertans over the age of 16.
A free guided self-help program that helps adults and youth age 15-plus learn how to manage low mood, mild-to-moderate depression, anxiety, stress or worry.
Wellness Together Canada
Free online resources and supports including immediate text support, information and videos, self-guided mental wellness programs and counselling.
The University of Calgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy is a bold commitment to the importance of mental health and well-being of our university family. Our vision is to be a community where we care for each other, learn and talk about mental health and well-being, receive support as needed, and individually and collectively realize our full potential.