Last summer, Wilfrid Laurier University grad Ryan Martin (BBA '16), bicycled more than 10,000 kilometres from one coast of Canada to the other to raise awareness about mental illness.
He stopped in every major city in his path to speak to audiences and met hundreds more Canadians at gas stations and coffee shops along the way. The four-month-long trip was physically demanding, of course, but more than that it was mentally challenging.
Martin, who has bipolar disorder, learned a lot on the ride about his mental health and how to manage it under extreme pressure. And by sharing his story, he encouraged Canadians across the country to talk more openly about mental illness.
Through his ride, he raised more than $120,000 for the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).
– Ryan Martin
Now the national lead of youth advocacy and philanthropy with the CMHA, he regularly speaks publicly about his illness and helps youth who struggled as he did. Martin is not cured — he still has challenging days — but he has learned how to better manage his mental health.
"The only reason this all happened was because I started to open up about my mental health," says Martin. "It’s amazing what can change in your life when you start really being accepting and open about your mental health."
The key has been finding strategies that work, such as meditating, calling a friend, exercising, seeing a therapist or watching a funny TV show, and then proactively using them when he needs to. It’s about recognizing when his thoughts are becoming negative or anxious and then working to not let those thoughts consume him.
"It takes time to figure it all out. It’s a process," says Martin. "I wish someone had said back then that you’re going to get through this; you’re still going to struggle but, over time, you’ll become stronger."
When he was in high school, Martin was often anxious and occasionally had low moods, but it wasn’t until he started university that his mental health issues began to have a greater effect on his life. Even though he felt things were going smoothly at university, he would suffer from episodes of debilitating depression followed by anxiety.
"I got into the co-op program, I was having fun and meeting friends. I played sports. I did well in school. But none of these things really sustained my mood in a positive way," he says. "It just slowly got worse. I started having breakdowns where I would feel totally mentally overwhelmed and just start crying. I felt alone, like no one else was going through what I was."
After a particularly difficult summer, Martin met with a social worker and told her everything he was feeling. When he left, he felt euphoric. His anxiety was gone and he felt confident, but it didn’t last.
"I realized that talking to someone, getting things off my chest, is extremely important and I have to do it on a consistent basis, but that alone isn’t going to manage all my issues," he says.
"Finding a tool is the first part and then finding out when it’s going to be effective in your life is the next step. When you start using your tools effectively, that’s when you become smart about managing your mental health."
In early 2017, Martin was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, type two, characterized by depressive episodes followed by an elevated mood. Some of the difficulties he had been experiencing started to make more sense and he was able to start down a road to find medications that worked best for him.
By the time Martin started on his ride from Tofino, B.C. to St. John’s, Nfld., he had already shared his mental illness with most friends and family, but the ride gave him an opportunity to share his story even more widely and get Canadians across the country talking about mental health. He saw friends and family opening up about their own difficulties and those close to them beginning to take those issues more seriously.
"People can be pretty dismissive if you say, 'I feel down' or 'I feel overwhelmed,' but that person might be really struggling and this could be their only way to communicate it," says Martin. "When people start talking about their mental health, you need to take it seriously."
Sharing his story over and over again has been therapeutic for Martin, but it has also changed his career path, too. Partway through Martin’s ride, he spoke at an event in Toronto and was approached by the CEO of the CMHA. A few weeks later, he was offered his current position as national lead of youth advocacy and philanthropy.
Martin moved to Toronto and is now spearheading a project for the CMHA using the $120,000 he raised. He remains passionate about helping youth learn to better manage their mental illnesses, just as he has.