When Susan Van Hart was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) at the age of 21, she made a decision that would drastically impact her mental health. “I decided I would tell no one,” she says. “Those were my darkest days. I lived in secrecy, hiding from the stigma of the disease.”
Van Hart thought MS only affected the elderly, but in fact, most people diagnosed with the chronic neurological disease are between the ages of 20 and 49. Her MS symptoms were minor at first until she had a flare-up that caused blindness in her right eye. “Losing my vision was one of the scariest symptoms I have ever faced and, stubbornly, I faced it alone,” she says. “I didn’t realize how detrimental my secrecy was for my mental health.”
When anxiety and depression led to suicidal thoughts, Van Hart knew she needed to make a change.
“Exercise started as a weight-loss strategy, but eventually led to an upward spiral of happiness that released me from the grips of depression. I truly believe exercise saved my life.”
Van Hart decided to reach out to the MS Society of Canada, learn about its programs and services, and volunteer at MS Walk where she found a community of people proudly proclaiming their connection to MS. “My MS Walk experience helped me realize that sharing my story could lead me to people who love and support me,” she says. “The MS Society also exposed me to the progress being made in MS research, giving me hope for the future. When I told my parents, I was able to share that hope with them.”
Van Hart now sees the opportunity to connect with others who might be feeling the same way she felt when she was first diagnosed, “I not only realize how therapeutic it is to talk about my MS journey, but how powerful sharing my story can be to ensure no one has to go through it alone.”