Story Untold: “Mental Illness Is Just a Part of Who You Are”

When Ryan Martin set off to cycle 8,000 kilometres across Canada to raise funds for mental health initiatives, he couldn’t have imagined how his life would change. The Guelph, Ontario native had only recently gone public with his story of living with bipolar disorder, and he was still working on the path to wellness. Today, he’s the National Lead for Youth Advocacy at the Canadian Mental Health Association.

“It takes time to find the tools that will help you,” says Martin. “You just have to be patient.”

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For Martin, a graduate of Wilfrid Laurier University, his story with mental health began while away at university for the first time.

“I got into the university of my dreams, the program of my dreams, [was] living with my best friends… but when I got to university, I noticed that I was starting to experience these really bad lows,” he says. “I’d do therapy, and I’d learn new tools. They would work for a while, and then it wouldn’t work. Then I’d read books, learn some things; they’d work for awhile, and then wouldn’t work.”

At first, Martin chalked his difficulties up to social anxiety, but the challenges persisted.

“So many years of just huge optimism, followed by huge disappointment,” he says. “You can kinda get caught up in, ‘I am depressed, I have anxiety,’ and that’s the biggest way you define yourself. But that’s just not a good way to think … because mental illness is just a part of who you are.

Eventually, Martin was given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder — a label he resisted at first, but eventually came to terms with. He discovered that through talking with others, he found acceptance.

“The more you talk about it, the more you see that other people are there to support you. The more you talk about it, the more you learn from other people’s experiences. The more you talk about it, the more comfortable you get,” he says. “Like, it’s only good to talk about it.”

With a newfound enthusiasm, Martin wanted to make a difference where he could. Eventually, the idea of a bike ride came to him. A backcountry skiing trip in British Columbia solidified the plan, after a few words of advice from the owner of the ski tour company: “Life is too short to not do what makes you happy.”

“That just struck a huge chord within me,” says Martin, “and I said, ‘what am I doing?’”

On the flight home, he sketched out a plan that became MindCycle. Months later, he was dipping his tire in the Pacific Ocean near Tofino to begin the ride.

Along the way, the 23-year-old amassed a following across the country. His story spread to CTV National News, and donations poured in. By the time the ride had ended, Martin had raised over $120,000 for the Canadian Mental Health Association. He had struck a nerve with countless Canadians, too.

“People would open up in the middle of Tim Horton’s, McDonald’s, side of the road, hotel lobby, whatever. It was incredible,” he says.

These days, Martin’s passion for mental health has become a career. After the ride ended, he started work in Toronto at the Canadian Mental Health Association. The goal is to empower more youth in their advocacy efforts.

“It’s all about creating a community of mental health champions,” he says.

Some days are still harder than others, but Martin is unfazed.

“No matter how you’re feeling, if you have the right tools in place, you can be good enough,” he says. “It’s just a matter of using those tools.

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