Tortured Mind

What happens when mental health education isn’t taught to kids

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Dustin

By the time Dustin Garron was 18, he’d tried to kill himself eight times. He faced relentless bullying since elementary school. He felt worthless. Life was bleak.

“You literally feel like everybody and everything in the world is against you and nothing will work out. There will never be positivity in your life and you’ll never get to where you want to go. It’s a fog,” Garron, now 22 and living in Arnprior, Ont., told Global News.

“I remember going home and thinking, ‘why am I here? Everyone hates me.’ I didn’t know what my purpose was, I felt like I was nothing,” he said.

After his last suicide attempt, Garron was airlifted to hospital and put on life support. During his recovery, he spent five weeks at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa, where he learned more about his mental illness. Before he got professional help, mental health was an obscure concept. Did he know he was grappling with severe depression?

“Not at all,” he told Global News. “I didn’t know the seriousness of it. I knew what I was feeling was sad but I didn’t know what it really was,” Garron said.

WATCH: Personal stories of mental illness and youth suicide

4,000 Canadians die from suicide every year

Garron isn’t alone. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death in 15 to 24 year olds in the country, second only to accidental deaths, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). It estimates that 4,000 Canadians die from suicide each year.

Up to 20 per cent — or one in five — of young Canadians are affected by a mental illness or disorder. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance abuse are most typical for this age group.

The CMHA estimates that about five per cent of young men and 12 per cent of young women between 12 and 19 have experienced severedepression like Garron. These startling statistics are why experts say introducing mental health education in the classroom is the key to preventing and identifying mental illnesses in young people.

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Stanley

It’s a proactive measure, according to Dr. Stanley Kutcher, a child psychiatrist and chair of adolescent mental health at Dalhousie University.

“Education can’t get rid of mental illness but it can give you the tools you need to do what you can to stack the odds in your favour that you won’t get it,” said Kutcher, a former member of the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s youth advisory committee.

Without this education, misinformation and isolation run rampant. Stigma festers, kids turn to dark corners of the Internet for advice, and they take up dangerous coping mechanisms, according to Dr. Alexa Bagnell, who is chief of psychiatry at IWK Health in Nova Scotia.

Bagnell works primarily with kids and adolescents diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety and other kinds of mental illness. Timing is integral.  Seventy per cent of young adults fighting mental illnesses say their problems began in childhood or adolescence.

“A lot of youth who seek [professional] help don’t know a lot about mental illness beforehand,” Bagnell said.

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Alexa

Lack of education could leave permanent scars on kids suffering alone and without appropriate help, she warned.

What are the signs kids are depressed?

Adolescence is a “high time” for the onset of mental health issues, Bagnell said.

Second to pregnancy, adolescence is the most rapid time for hormonal changes in the human life cycle. Kids face tricky transitions, relationships are shaky and social pressures run high. The ominous dark cloud of depression and the stressors of anxiety typically manifest during this tumultuous life stage. Bagnell has seen both up close and intimately.

With some cases of anxiety Bagnell has encountered, youth drop out of high school, they quit jobs or extracurricular activities they once loved, and they shy away from any social interactions.

There are a lot of red flags when it comes to depression: kids could be irritable or angry, they lose interest in their hobbies and their friendships, they’re not motivated at school, don’t sleep well, or they have changes in their appetite.

It can be insidious and gradual, sneaking up on kids as the symptoms slowly pile up, Bagnell explains. When it comes to depression, her patients have felt hopelessness, like life is not worth living for months at a time.

It’s these sentiments that trigger “unhealthy coping strategies,” she warned. They adopt eating disorders, such as bulimia, binge-eating or anorexia and worry about body image. They engage in “self-harm” — they have suicidal thoughts, take up cutting themselves or turn to substance abuse.

“It’s a horrible, dark feeling where you feel like no one can reach you and no one cares. What would you do to get a break from that? Just about anything,” Bagnell said.

This is why Dr. Brendan Andrade, a child psychiatrist at the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health (CAMH), tries to intercept mental illness early — in primary school. Andrade specializes in working with kids who are as young as four or five years old and are dealing with behavioural issues.

They could act out, display aggression or they’re “oppositional,” Andrade said. His job is to help kids understand their emotions, learn how to cope with them and forge social skills. He intervenes early because the emergence of concerns like disruptive, aggressive behaviour is predictive — not in all kids, but in most.

“There’s a greater risk for kids who have these clusters of early problems for having longer-term mental illness, mood and anxiety problems, or other types of mental health problems, said Andrade.

Kids who have a mental illness are at a much higher risk of mental health problems as adults. The odds are stacked against them:

  • Children with conduct disorders are eight times more likely to develop ADHD as teens
  • Teens with ADHD are twice as likely as other kids to grapple with anxiety or substance-abuse disorder as adults.

Andrade steps in because mental health issues linger. They can’t be ignored or they’ll get worse.

WATCH: The mental health crisis in Canada explained (Video by Emanuela Campanella)

What’s needed: An authoritative voice to tell youth it’s going to be OK

Garron is now in his fourth year of studies at the University of Ottawa. He landed a job as a banking adviser at the Royal Bank of Canada, moved into his own apartment and bought a car.

“When I bought my own bed, I cried in the middle of Ikea,” he said.

His treatment taught him how to cope with school stress, financial worries and anxiety from social situations. He stopped staying up all night and sleeping all day. It hasn’t been a smooth ride: some days he needs to rely on his loved ones or practice the coping strategies he’s picked up when he feels down. He wishes he learned about mental health earlier and that support is readily available.

“That would’ve been helpful to come to terms with it,” he said. “I wish I could tell my old self, life can change in the blink of an eye.”

Bagnell said she’s “so grateful” when kids seek her help. But she knows there are other Canadian youth out there who aren’t getting the answers they need. “We have to be that hope. We have to say, ‘I understand you feel like this now, but this can get better,’” she said.

Where to get help

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide PreventionDepression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868  all offer ways for getting help if you, or someone you know, is suffering from mental health issues.

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