Every week, Drella Simpson follows the same routine.
Around 7 p.m., Simpson heads to the Quadra Village Community Centre for the weekly Bipolar Babes Teens2Twenties Support Group.
Sitting with anywhere from three to eight other individuals between the ages of 15 to 25, Simpson helps facilitate discussions generally centred around mental health and self-care.
The Teens2Twenties Support Group is a 90-minute session where young adults from around Greater Victoria can have stigma-free conversations about living with mental illness.
It’s a group Simpson has come to rely on to help her with her illness as well. Three years ago, Simpson was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.
“It was really hard to hear because I didn’t know much about bi-polar disorder. So I had to go off things I had heard from other people,” said the 19-year-old Victoria resident.
At times, Simpson felt really depressed or manic — some of which was heightened when she moved into her own apartment when she was 18 years old.
After months of living on her own, she began to feel isolated. Her anxiety grew and she felt as though she had “a ball and chain around her ankle,” she said in a blog post for Stigma-Free Zone Superheroes, a program that teaches about stigmas that cause others to be seen as different.
But now she’s back on track. Simpson has made changes to her lifestyle, including changing her diet from one mostly based on restaurant food, cigarettes, chocolate and diet Coke to a vegetarian diet, exercising daily and spending time with positive people.
The support group has become a key factor in turning her life around. It allowed Simpson to get out of her room once a week and interact with people her own age again. Once an attendee, Simpson is now the youth facilitator of the event.
While she admits it was difficult dealingwith her illness, it was also in some ways a gift.
“It’s been hard to deal with that obviously, but it’s been a bit of a gift as well just being able to do everything with BiPolar Babes,” Simpson said, adding she hopes to end the stigma around bi-polar disorder.
“It just really helped to be around other people who understood what I was going through. I think a lot of times people make a judgement quickly without actually knowing that it means to have bi-polar disorder.”
Simpson was recently recognized for her work with BiPolar Babes at the 18th annual United Way Greater Victoria Youth Now Awards, where she was awarded the big change award.
“Drella is making an extremely valuable impact in our local community by creating a space where youth struggling with mental health issues are listened to, encouraged and empowered,” said Patricia Jelinski, CEO of United Way Greater Victoria.
“The embodiment of hope and courage, Drella is a true mentor and has demonstrated leadership while working hard to push through personal challenges.”
The Youth Now Awards recognizes young people between the ages of 11 and 29 for their contributions as volunteers and community leaders. This year’s winners also include Mya Hewstan Gates, Kelsey Griffin, Lauren Deborah Magner, Ruby Tang, Brooke Parlby and Kaela Douglas.