MY FRIEND INGRID: Kelowna woman hopes to inspire others to break stigma of mental illness - InfoNews

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MY FRIEND INGRID: Kelowna woman hopes to inspire others to break stigma of mental illness

21-year-old Braelyn Bjornson is sharing her story, and working the The Maddie Project, to fight the stigma surrounding mental health.
January 27, 2017 - 12:40 PM


KELOWNA - If you just met Braelyn Bjornson you would see a healthy, happy, vibrant, 21-year-old. What you wouldn’t know, is that she suffers from a mental illness that threatened her life.

“I’m a very extroverted person. I’m loud, I’m outgoing, I play sports, I get good grades, I have lots of friends," she says. "I think this was part of the reason why people close to me found it so hard to believe I was depressed - just because I was smiling on the outside.”

Two years ago, Bjornson was diagnosed with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa, but that's perhaps not what you think it is. It’s not always related to weight.

“I don’t remember ever thinking as a little girl that I was fat, but I don’t remember ever liking myself,” says Bjornson. “There was never one point in my eating disorder that I thought, 'I’m going to do this because I want to be skinny' — it was about control.”

Bjornson moved to Vancouver to attend the Sauder School of Business in the fall of 2013. During her first year there, an accumulation of conflicts with friends, being away from home, intensive schooling and the loss of a family member caused her to feel as if her life was spiraling away from her.

“I was planning to drop out,” she says. “I remember just walking out of a midterm - not because it was hard, but because I was so emotionally unstable, and so, so hungry.”

The 21-year-old remembers going up to three days without eating. However, she refrains from sharing details of her non-eating rituals because she doesn’t want to influence people currently struggling with eating disorders.

The more her eating disorder took over her life, the more depressed and anxious Bjornson became. With so many social events surounding food, Bjornson began to isolate herself, because it was easier to be alone than to deal with the presence of food.

"I was alone, and so, so hungry. But the guilt I would feel from eating food, wasn't worth it."

Bjornson describes the disorder as her "dirty little secret." The shame and guilt she felt surrounding the eating disorder prevented her from sharing her story with others.

"I was ashamed and embarrassed. I have a younger sister, who I feel I should be a role model for, and at time, I wasn't."

Bjornson says she was only forced to talk about her disease when it started to compromise her physical appearance.

“I was fainting, my hair was falling out, I had brittle nails and yellow skin - people were telling me I was going to die if I didn’t get help.”

It was only when her aunt, a health professional in Vancouver, suggested she go to an eating disorder program, did Bjornson finally listen.

“I didn’t want to go at first, but after my first meeting, I didn’t want to leave. It was a room of no stigma.”

The group gave Bjornson ways to cope and help manage her illness. One of those ways was distinguishing her eating disorder from herself.

She gave it a name: Ingrid.

“I didn’t want to be just my eating disorder. I wanted to distinguish Braelyn’s and Ingrid’s thoughts from each other.”

During her recovery, she says she realized although she isolated herself from people close to her, she was never truly on her own.

“I was spending a lot of time alone, but I wasn’t alone, I was with my new best friend.”

Bjornson says finally admitting she had a problem was a huge weight off her shoulders, and assumed it would be a downhill battle from there. However, her path to recovery proved to be a challenging one.

"I remember eating my first full meal, and crying the entire time - I felt pathetic."

Although Bjornson is a lot healthier and happier now, she says she still struggles with her eating disorder and mental illness daily.

"I refrain from looking in reflective surfaces," she says. "Every time I put food in my mouth I feel anxiety about it."

Bjornson says although some friends and family were supportive, she did lose relationships along the way.

"People were really angry with me. I think they felt if they gave me an ultimatum I would snap out of it," she says. "I wish I could've just snapped out of it - but it doesn't work that way."


It is the stigma surrounding eating disorders and mental health that Bjornson wants to break down.

“The difficult thing about mental illness, is for the most part, you can’t see it,” she says. “I remember breaking my arm and everyone wanted to sign my cast, people were asking how I was - people cared. If you tell someone you have a mental illness, more often than not they run the other way.”

It was when Georgia McAlpine, an 18-year-old Kelowna girl, took her own life on Oct. 4, 2016, that Bjornson felt she needed to speak out about the impacts of mental health.

Shortly after, Bjornson read an article about a mother who lost her daughter to suicide. The piece connected with Bjornson in a way she says she can’t quite describe.

Bjornson then contacted Nicole German, founder of The Maddie Project - a Canadian organization aimed to raise awareness on youth mental health. After countless back and forth e-mails, Skype sessions and Face-Time calls, German invited Bjornson to come on board with the project. Bjornson is now the B.C. Ambassador of the Maddie Project.

One of her first initiatives for the organization was writing a blog post, encouraging those suffering, that it does get better. The blog was published on Huffington Post.

On behalf of the Maddie Project, Bjornson is presenting two, one-hour talks at Kelowna Senior Secondary School. The high school she graduated from in 2013.

“It’s the first time there has ever been a talk this big about mental health in Kelowna,” she says. “It’s going to be the most vulnerable moment in my life.”

Bjornson says her main focus is to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health and to get people talking about it. She says she’s not only talking to those who are struggling, but to those who aren’t.

“I’m talking to those who don’t know - because how lucky are they? They need to be willing to engage in this conversation, because they play as much, if not a bigger role in fighting the stigma.”

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, almost one in five youth, suffer from a mental illness.

“When I was younger, I wish someone told me the power and impact of words. We’re so critical of ourselves and others... it doesn’t hurt to be kind.”

An afternoon talk is scheduled for 1:55 p.m. at KSS.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Jenna Hickman or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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