Author sheds light on mental health journey

The joys and trials of living in a small farming community, and how both can play a role in one’s mental health, is the idea behind Westman author Lewellyn Melnyk’s new book.

Melnyk grew up on a grain farm north of Russell, 140 kilometres northwest of Brandon. After working as a journalist at CKX television in Brandon, Melnyk eventually returned to agriculture. She now farms with her husband in Angusville, 162 kilometres northwest of Brandon.

Although Melnyk’s passion for writing never diminished even after her career switch, it wasn’t until she’d come through a particularly difficult period of anxiety and depression — which she said she’d suffered from since she was 12 years old — that she thought about writing a book.

“I didn’t write that much until recently, and I really, really missed it, because when I was in journalism, I really enjoyed it. I kind of had a calling on my heart to share my story, and so I decided that my skill should get put to work again. So I sat down and decided I was going to write.”

“Rooted” — part self-help book, part memoir — not only tells the story of Melnyk’s personal mental health journey, but offers warm understanding and advice for those who find themselves struggling.

Melnyk’s inspiration to write about mental health wasn’t based solely on her own path. Having lost a friend to mental illness in 2020, she believes sharing about mental health issues and what has helped her could possibly be of help to others as well.

“I wanted to write about mental health and some tips, kind of make a guidebook for people … about how to stay healthy, just because I had learned so much,” she said.

But deciding to write and publish a book during the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t easy. Melnyk, also a mother, put the project on the backburner for a couple of months before she was able to return her focus to it. From start to finish, the endeavour took her about three years.

It’s also not always easy to write about such sensitive subjects as mental health, but Melnyk’s desire to positively affect people and her hope to foster better mental health for rural Manitobans is what kept her going, she said.

“It is difficult to write about, no doubt, but that’s why I did it, because I think it will help people.”

When Melnyk was diagnosed with depression at the age of 12, there weren’t a lot of options for treatment or support, even though her parents made a concerted effort to help her. Thankfully, they were able to work with a pediatrician, and Melnyk found creative outlets to help her cope.

“I did lean on friends, and my writing and music.”

The Anxiety Disorders Association of Manitoba says that one in four people will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. For Melnyk, hers showed up in her 30s, when her children were very young. She began having panic attacks and was experiencing difficulty sleeping. After getting the all-clear on a physical level from her doctor, eventually Melnyk realized that anxiety was the cause of her suffering. And though that put a name to her problem, it didn’t initially help her, she said.

“I was told, ‘it’s just anxiety.’ And that word ‘just’ is kind of heartbreaking when somebody tells you that because it’s not a good feeling to have panic attacks, not a good feeling to deal with anxiety. And to leave a doctor’s office with a doctor telling you to go Google stuff was not helpful to me.”

Although her experience with the doctor she was seeing at the time was disheartening, Melnyk soon took her healing into her own hands. She began reading books and researching anxiety, which could be enlightening and defeating in turn. In “Rooted,” Melnyk hopes she’ll be able to streamline the process for others.

The book lays out how she found the resources that helped her, but also relies on experts who share their experience in treating anxiety, other mood disorders and mental health issues.

It was incredibly important for Melnyk to show people what it looks like to be dealing with anxiety and depression, including tips on how to manage it and her favourite coping skills.

“I am not a doctor and I am not a health professional, but I have lived it, and those lived experiences hold value for other people who are maybe going through the same thing,” she said.

Living in a small community, where everyone knows each other and gossip flourishes due to simple human nature, can be intimidating when faced with any kind of a challenge, Melnyk said. But at the same time, it’s that very interconnectedness that makes rural living so helpful for seeking support to overcome issues.

“If you’re struggling, often in small towns people are going to reach out, and they’re going to try to help. And that is such a blessing. I think that’s what really makes our small towns strong.”

Melnyk’s advice for anyone struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental health issues, regardless of the type of community they call home, includes eating healthy and being consistent with sleep and exercise. Connection is also something that everyone should prioritize, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic made it a struggle for people to get together for so long.

“Make sure that [you] have some people you can talk to and be vulnerable with.”

It’s also imperative that people understand that struggling simply means one is human, she added.

“There’s nothing wrong with you, and there’s no guilt or shame with that.”

Another one of Melnyk’s hopes is that her book, which was published in February and is available on Amazon, will help to reduce the stigma that many people still face regarding mental illness and mood disorders.

“Maybe it will normalize mental illnesses for other people, because we all struggle with mental health. And there shouldn’t be guilt or shame if you do. It can be a lonely journey to find help, but I want people to know there is help out there.”

So far, the feedback that Melnyk has received about her book has been very positive. She’s hopeful that in the future, the book will be available in other major book retailers around Canada. And while she’s not totally sure if she’ll one day pen another book, Melnyk is open to the idea.

“It was a huge undertaking … and I’ve sacrificed some time from other areas of my life,” she said. “I’ll probably still write, but I don’t know if there’s another book in my future. But I’ll never say never.”

Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun