Mental health education at young age key in reducing stigma: experts

Watch Above: 19-year-old Becca Cala has been verbally and physically abused yet she’s speaking openly about her mental health. Crystal Goomansingh reports.

TORONTO – Becca Cala says that despite her multiple diagnosed mental health illnesses, she has learned to play the violin to “release her energy in a healthy way.”

“Ask anyone who knows me now and they will tell you I am the happiest girl ever because I know I am getting the right support and help that I need,” she said.

Cala has been diagnosed with illnesses including Tourette Syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), pervasive developmental disorder and ADHD.

The 19-year-old’s story won an anti-stigma contest hosted annually by Children’s Mental Health Ontario (CMHO).

READ MORE:  New campaign aims to increase mental health resources, reduce youth suicide rates in Canada

The YouTube video contest Change the View is held during Children’s Mental Health Week. The contest asks youth across Ontario to make a short video that shows how we can all take the stigma out of kids’ mental health issues like stress, depression, ADHD, bullying and psychosis.

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“People on the bus laugh at me, move away from me, start filming me on their phones or tell the driver I am intoxicated,” she said in the video. “There is still so much stigma toward my mental health illnesses. People are very quick to judge.”

Education key to reducing stigma

Experts say that educating our children and youth about mental health at a young age is key in reducing the stigma often associated with having a mental health illness.

WATCH: Becca Cala talks about her story. Video by Natasha Boshoff and Suaad Issa.

Dr. David Kreindler—head of the youth psychiatry program at Sunnybrook Hospital—said it is critical for teens to be aware of the mental health issues that may exist amongst themselves and their peers.

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“Teens really need to really become aware of what mental illness is and what it looks like,” said Kreindler.

According to CMHO, one in five children and youth–roughly 500,000 kids– has a mental health problem. Disorders range from anxiety, depression and conduct disorder to eating disorders, psychoses and bipolar disorder and, if left untreated, “can lead to school failure, family conflicts, drug abuse and even suicide.” 

Gordon Floyd, CEO and president of CMHO, said that mental illness needs to be presented in the media and understood by the public as both common and manageable.

READ MORE: Montreal researchers discover ‘teen gene’ that combats mental illness

“This would mean balancing the sensational and frightening news stories that link mental illness to violence, with more the far more frequent stories of recovery, success and ‘normal’ life after treatment,” he said.  “For instance, we need to see more characters in TV series who have a history of mental illness as an incidental part of their story, and of course we need to see and hear more and more people who speak about their successful recovery.”

National Mental Health Week is being observed this week by many organizations across Canada, including Canadian Mental Health Association and Children’s Mental Health Ontario.

Stigma and treatment programs

Stigma, said Kreindler, “is one of the things that gets in the way of people looking for help.”

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“It’s one of the things that prevents people from staying involved in treatment programs,” he said. “We also need to reduce the stigma and understand that having a mental health illness is a medical condition just like any other kind of medical illness.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs immediate assistance, please call Kids Help Phone (24 hrs) 1-800-668-6868 or go to their website.

Dr. Joel Goldberg, associate professor at York University’s department of psychology, said although it’s sometimes important to let students know where to seek help, the key issue is not where those services are but helping the student overcome the barrier of being embarrassed or ashamed.

“They know where the services are, they need to take the steps to overcome the embarrassment to take the steps they need,” he said.

Getting treatment early

Depending on the mental illness, Kreindler said when it comes to getting diagnosed early and receiving treatment, some conditions are more amenable to being cured than others.

“There are some forms of mental illness, just like some forms of physical illness like diabetes or cancer, that are not curable,” he said.

There are more than 85 accredited children’s mental health centres across Ontario. Find a centre near you here.

Kreindler said then there are other kinds of physical illnesses, like for example a broken leg, where it’s a matter of getting the right kind of help as soon as possible so that it will heal properly. He said that with early treatment, many forms of anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder and ADHD can be managed.

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Some early signs/symptoms of early mental illness in youth can be seen based on how a child or teen is functioning.

READ MORE: Canadian gov’t inaction on mental health hurts economy, families, says report

“It’s one thing if a child is saying, ‘I’ve been feeling sad for the last few days,’ over ‘I’ve been feeling sad and not getting out of bed,'” he said. “Other signs can include not eating the way that they used to, having difficulty with school and/or having difficulty getting to school or disconnecting from their friends.”

Goldberg said that late teens and early adulthood is the period when some very serious mental illnesses have their first onset.

“And so getting help for those individuals who are starting to suffer from mental health problems is crucial at that particular time because delays in recognizing and then seeking help can actually worsen some of the problems.”

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