Last year, CAMH launched a national dialogue on mental health, spotlighting the Difference Makers who are making positive changes in the mental health space. Florence K. was chosen as one of those Difference Makers, and she performed at the Difference Makers Gala on May 23rd.

Florence K. is an award-winning singer, yogi and mental health advocate. After receiving treatment for depression, she was able to reflect back on her experience and documented her struggle in her book, Buena Vida.

We spoke with the singer this week. 

SDTC: What happened during your first experience with depression?

FK: My first experience with depression started in the summer of 2011. I was going through a lot of anxiety and extreme insomnia due to the separation from my daughter’s father. I was also working a lot and slowly started disconnecting from myself, losing the ability to function normally. It was subtly taking over without [allowing me] the time and knowledge to realize what was happening.

Within a few weeks it had spiralled down to a major depressive episode and later on in December I had two psychoses. I was hospitalized at Christmas of 2011 and got out in February 2012. I have recently been diagnosed with Bipolarity Type II disorder and with the right medications and therapy, I lead a great life and am able to fully function as a mom, fiancée, artist and entrepreneur. I know what my “alarm signals” and triggers are, and I learned to prevent the illness from overtaking my life.

What do you wish more people knew about depression?

I wish the stigma that still surrounds it would be removed once and for all. Depression, anxiety and bipolarity are NOT a choice. I feel like one of the main problems our society still faces is that immense gap between beliefs and science.

I would also like people to know that during the episodes, one of the symptoms is to be convinced that things will never be okay and that there are no solutions. That is only a symptom and not the truth. Seven years ago, I would never have guessed for one second that I would have my life back on track–and even better than before the depression. It is possible to lead a good life, but we need more accessible resources and we also need to remove the stigma, the guilt and the shame so that we are prone to look for help or to open up about how we feel.

Also, it is important to remember that mental illness is an illness; it’s not our identity. I started feeling better in the hospital when I was able to understand that and dissociate myself–my identity–from the illness that was invading my mind.

Mental illness is a bio-psycho-social illness; it affects and is affected by our physical health. It shouldn’t be regarded as anything else than a health problem. Its reality is extremely complex, and no one can judge what one is going through. It has nothing to do with being “strong” or “weak.”

When you were compiling your story for your book, did you have it in your mind that it would be published one day?

It was actually my publisher who convinced me to write it! I had started to write a book about yoga and described in one page my struggles with mental health and my publisher told me, “Look, there are so many books about yoga and you are not a Master. Why don’t you write your own story? It could help so many people.”

It took me a few weeks to get used to the idea and decide whether I wanted to write it or not, but as soon as I started writing it, it was clear that it had to get out of my mind and on the paper. It is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. So many people talk to me about how it helped them understand what the illness was and to not feel alone in it.

What would you say to those who may be suffering from depression and don’t see a way out?

It is extremely important to see a health professional. If any dark thought or self-harming thought occurs to you, please consult. Do not take it lightly. Not seeing a way out is a symptom. It is not the truth. There are ways out. It can be medication and therapy, hospitalization, years of developing self-knowledge, and changing life situations or habits, but there is a way out. I never thought I’d be alive today and I am.

What gives you hope now?

Knowledge. To me, all the new studies and researches that are done and help explain and understand mental illness are the best way to better know how to address it. In my case, it was to go to university for psychology after my MDE (Major Depressive Episode). I think compassion, self-compassion and communication, are crucial as well. I have hope in the new generations. My twelve-year-old and her friends are so open about how they feel–about realities of life. They don’t judge each other about their feelings. That is so important. We need the government to follow up on how important accessible mental health resources are.

We are talking more and more about mental illness nowadays. Do you find the stigma to be as strong? What still needs to be done, in your opinion?

I find we are in a way better place than even seven years ago. [There are] amazing campaigns–like all the work CAMH does and the Bell Let’s Talk campaign–and people opening up about their struggles with mental health definitely helped a lot. Things are starting to change–here anyway–but there is still a long way to go. It has to be engraved in people’s minds that mental health is health. Period. There is still a strong resistance to that, as if the brain wasn’t a body organ! The sharing of experience really helps people. Whenever people can relate and see, hear or feel they are not alone, we are a step ahead. That is why I chose to share my story and am so proud of having been selected as one of CAMH’s 150 Difference Makers this year.

Follow Florence K. on Instagram, FB & Twitter. The Difference Makers Gala provides a forum for dialogue and engagement and will serve as the culmination of CAMH’s national 150 Leading Canadians for Mental Health campaign.