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Rola Dagher is president of Cisco Canada

The other day, I found myself trying to recall the last time I saw the sun come up on my drive to work or enjoyed the deep hue of pink it casts across the sky when it sets this time of year. These days, everything seems to be cast in grey.

The arrival of holiday bills, coupled with the cold weather and lack of sunlight, can make this a tough time for a lot of people. And while Blue Monday – the third Monday of January – has been called the most depressing day of the year, for many people, it is just one of many dark days.

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), one in five Canadians experiences a mental illness, including addiction, in any given year. And young people between the ages of 15 and 24 are more likely to experience mental illness and/or substance use disorders than any other age group.

Years ago, we didn’t have these statistics. Mental health was talked about in hushed voices, or behind closed doors. In fact, in my home growing up in Lebanon, it wasn’t discussed at all.

I was born and raised in a small village called Dahr el Maghara. As the second eldest of six girls, I played a large role in helping raise my younger sisters. My childhood memories are of civil war and living in a series of bomb shelters. At one point, my bed was a cement floor in a deserted hospital.

By the time I was a teenager, I had witnessed the murders of some of my family members and had lived most of my life on the run. We were a very close family, but rarely paused to talk about our worries and fears. Admitting that I was dealing with mental-health issues was never really an option for me.

By the age of 16, I was in an arranged and abusive relationship, and had a new baby. My parents and sisters had left for Canada. I felt abandoned. Alone.

Thankfully, my story didn’t end there. With my infant daughter in one hand and a suitcase in the other, I fled Lebanon and reunited with my parents and sisters in Canada. I had arrived in a country of hope and opportunity. I finally felt free. Physically, I was okay. In fact, on most days, I was smiling. But looking back on those days now, I realize that, mentally, I was struggling.

That’s the thing about mental health. We don’t wear our pain and wounds on the outside. We carry the weight of them on the inside, hidden to those around us. Maybe it’s that we don’t want to burden our family and friends, or perhaps it’s that we’re having a hard time articulating what we are feeling.

I am very fortunate to work for a company that provides extended health coverage for registered psychologists, counsellors, social workers and behavioural analysts as part of our benefits package – at no cost to employees.

But how do we improve access for the thousands of people across Canada who do not have these benefits? How can we connect them with the services and support they need, when they need it?

We recently teamed up with CAMH and Deloitte to help connect mental-health patients with physicians faster using our collaboration technology. We believe this technological innovation will improve patient outcomes, deliver enhanced care and increase the scale and scope of mental-health services for Canadians.

More and more of us are realizing that mental health is health, period. And for those of us who are having a hard time getting through the dark days of winter, CAMH offers these tips:

  • Take an inventory of your lifestyle habits to see what simple but effective changes you can make to  improve your mental health
  • Get proper sleep
  • Maintain a healthy diet
  • Be physically active
  • Set up a budget to manage your spending habits

Every day, people around us are struggling; struggling to understand and come to terms with how they are feeling; struggling to find the courage to reach out to someone and ask for help. We have come a long way in removing the stigma around mental health, but we still have a long way to go.

While it may not have an official spot on our calendars, Blue Monday is a gift. It’s an opportunity to raise awareness and have open and candid conversations about mental health.

Think about starting up your own conversation. I just did.

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