Young Minds: Stigma keeps youth suffering from mental health issues in the dark

TORONTO — Jayson Pham’s life changed on Nov. 26, 2010.

While on his lunch break at school, he was struck by a car and knocked unconscious while crossing the street.

The grade 10 student had a seizure because the blow to his head was so severe.

“I can remember when the paramedics woke me up and the strange feeling in the cold, dense air,” Pham, now 18, told Global News.

“Even though the [ambulance] ride was only 10 to 15 minutes long, it felt like forever.”

It wasn’t the physical bruises that were difficult to recover from. Instead, Pham was left with years of mental health issues that still plague him.

He went through bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts. He stopped eating. His grades dropped and he pulled away from friends. The brain trauma he suffered made it difficult to remember things or focus on daily tasks.

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He’d experience flashbacks and flinch when he was at crosswalks, experiencing a “weird sensation” that the accident would happen again.

Suffering in silence

Like most youth dealing with depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions, Pham suffered in silence.

When he initially talked to his parents about how he was feeling, his father called him names: crazy, mental, psycho.

Pham said his family doctor brushed off his concerns.

“Instead of helping me, he gave me a blood test and said, ‘Don’t commit suicide. Be happy.’”

It wasn’t until years later that he was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and clinical depression.

He sought the help of a psychiatrist and prescription antidepressants to help him cope with his condition.

Still, Pham had an uphill climb in battling the stigma of mental illness.

That’s why he shares his story with his peers, through the TDSB program, Stop the Stigma. This is Pham’s first time sharing his story publically.

Teenager and student Jayson Pham shares his personal story about his mental illness and offers advice to a high school audience, as past of the TDSB’s Stop the Stigma program.

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Youth outreach on mental health awareness

Pham is part of a youth-led revolution changing how we view and help those in need. The movement is making waves across the country.

And for good reason: With one in five suffering from a mental illness — and Canada’s youth suicide rate at the third highest in the industrial world — a fundamental shift is necessary.

But the stigma of mental illness is omnipresent in today’s society.

And it’s interfering with getting help. Close to 80 per cent of those who need intervention don’t get it.

“It’s like saying to someone who has a broken leg…to take a walk. It’s a very similar situation,” Pham said.

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This week marks the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Mental Health Week.

The organization estimates that the total number of 12 to 19 year olds at risk of depression is a staggering 3.2 million.

Children’s Mental Health Ontario is also marking its mental health week from May 5 to May 11.

Read more: Young Minds: Stress, anxiety plaguing Canadian youth

The stigma can come from anywhere — friends, school, even for Pham, even the health care system and family.

Stella Ducklow, who lives with bipolar disorder and ADHD, said the stigma can even come from ourselves.

“There’s a couple of different aspects to this but the two main ones are self stigmatization – people who are so afraid of being judged that they don’t get help,” Ducklow told Global News.

In her case, she encountered the worst of her problems in high school: depression, missing class, failing school, turning to self-harm.

When her mom called the local children’s hospital, she was told there was a six-month waiting list.

In Canada, only one out of five children who need mental health services receives it.

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Like Pham, Ducklow is now devoting her time to spreading the word about mental health and outreach to youth.

They agree that discussing the sensitive issue could break the tension surrounding mental health issues.

“The more people speak, the less afraid other people will be to speak, and the more we can change these issues,” Ducklow said.

Peer support in managing mental health

Pham speaks at Stop the Stigma assemblies across the Toronto District School Board, meanwhile, Ducklow takes part in Youth Against Stigma Coffee Houses in Halifax.

This event occurs about once a month and anyone can participate, sharing music, spoken word, or discussions on their experiences with mental illness.

Catherine Bancroft, coordinator for the Mental Health and Wellbeing, speaks about the Toronto District School Board’s program, Stop the Stigma and why school is a critical link in helping students with their mental health.

The first ever youth summit, called Unleash the Noise, also took place this year. Inspired and organized by students, it brought together youth raising awareness and increasing mental health literacy. Hundreds of high school, college and university-level students joined the cause.

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“It’s so valuable because it gives youth – even if it’s only once a month and even if it’s only for two hours – a safe place they can go and where they know its safe. And that it’s okay to be them and it’s okay to have a mental illness,” Ducklow said.

Photographer Stella Ducklow talks about her diagnosis of bipolar disorder and the stigma around mental health that can stop young people from seeking help..

It even extends to youth who have family members or friends managing their mental health.

These programs are a starting place to making the reality of mental illness part of everyday life.

Ducklow said she holds a lot of value in youth helping youth. Tapping into this support group could help kids dealing with mental health find others to relate to.

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“It normalizes their experience and it makes them feel less isolated,” she said.

Pham was scared of how his friends would react when he told them of his diagnoses.

“Thank god they accepted me as a person,” he said of his peers, family, guidance counselors and school social workers who helped him along the way.

He urges parents, teachers and youth to consider how others are feeling.

“You may look normal from the outside but no one knows what you’re thinking from the inside,” he said.

“The thing about mental illness is there’s no physical aspects of it, but you cannot tell when someone is suffering from mental illness.”

And for those suffering in silence: “I just want everyone to know that speaking up about your problems with someone can make a great difference,” he said, pointing to teachers, friends, family, counselors and coaches as examples.

“Please don’t keep the pain to yourself because no one can read your mind.”

Jayson’s father now understands what his son is going through and is supporting his son’s recovery.

“They were very fearful…when I first got diagnosed by a psychiatrist with PTSD and clinical depression they were like ‘oh my god, wow’ they were like surprised,” he told Global News.

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“When I came home that night my dad was like ‘Jayson, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.’  Having support from him was the best moment, I gotta say ranked number one – the best.”

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