Educating Youth About Mental Illness

Shelby Rankel

Web-only article from "Schools" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5 (2)

stock photoMy story

I have struggled with mental illness since I was eight years old. For a long time I didn’t even know I had a mental illness. I just thought I had a ‘problem’ and I’d get over it. I didn’t realize that my anxiety and my repetitive and obsessive actions were a sign of something bigger. What was just a nervous habit at first escalated into full-blown obsessive-compulsive behaviour. I tried to hide my behaviour from my parents as best as I could.

When I was finally being diagnosed, the doctors couldn’t decide if I had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or impulse control disorder (ICD). But, either way, I was shocked and confused. Why did I get this? Why did I do the things I did? I felt like a freak. I hid my mental illness from the world, because I didn’t want people judging me.

Transitioning from junior high to senior high school was a particularly tough time for me. There was a lot of stigma around having a mental illness, so it was very difficult to tell my peers what was going on. Many people who had known me all my life and had been friendly before were now avoiding me. They made up their own stories or conclusions about what was wrong with me; they teased me and talked behind my back. It was hard to walk down the halls at school knowing that people were talking about me as I walked by. I felt like an outcast.

I tried many things to help me cope with my urges, such as having a box that contained a collection of things I enjoyed keeping myself busy with. I also took a variety of different medications; some worked, some didn’t.

I had many low points, but I was lucky—I had a strong support network. My parents and my sister were very supportive, and the few friends that I did take into confidence helped me get through the rough times.

My mother happened to connect me with a youth outreach worker at the Canadian Mental Health Association. This worker was easy to talk to and I could tell her what I was feeling. I never felt judged by her, and anything I told her she kept in the strictest of confidence.

When I was 16—an age at which I was doing really well—my youth worker asked if I’d be interested in becoming a co-facilitator for a course called Mental Illness First Aid (MIFA). I said yes.

During my high school years, there was no course that taught youth about mental illness. I had even used some of the stereotypes about mental illness, because I didn’t know better. Maybe I hoped it would shift attention away from me and make me look like any other teenager.

I’ve been delivering the course for two years now, under contract with the Canadian Mental Health Association for the Kootenays (CMHA Kootenays).

Mental Illness First Aid—what is it?

Mental Illness First Aid (MIFA)1 is a two-day course designed to help people such as teachers, social workers, support workers and others to understand mental illness in easy-to-grasp terms. The course teaches people about the behaviours associated with different types of mental health concerns. People also learn to see the first signs and symptoms of mental illnesses, and learn a variety of ways to help people through their journey.

My main role in the delivery of the course is to tell my personal story of living with mental illness. I think this is a very valuable aspect of the course. It gives people a chance to hear a first-hand story about mental illness, and it gives them a unique perspective—mine.

When I present the MIFA course, people always come up to me after and say that they can’t believe I’ve struggled through this—because I look so confident and well put together, I speak clearly and always have a smile on my face. They tell me I’m so young to be so wise and not at all what they expected. I guess I’m not sure what they expected. But I have learned that mental illness does not have just one face; it has many.

Each time I deliver the course I learn something new about mental illness. I know now that one in four people will be affected by mental illness, whether it’s their own personal struggle or that of a family member. I know now that there are many treatment options. And I’ve learned that it’s best to tackle my own mental illness with honesty.

MIFA for children and youth

Recently, CMHA for the Kootenays refined the mental health first aid course to focus mainly on youth and children. This approach will focus more on the disorders associated with young people. It will give parents and youth tools to identify the signs of mental illness, and knowledge about treatment options.

We have piloted the course a few times now with youth outreach workers and education assistants from the school district. We plan to deliver the new course to all school staff in the area.

I’m excited about this course. There is such a need to get rid of the stereotypes and stigma around mental illness. When you’re a teenager, what people think about you is important. It’s also really important to have friends. So stigma makes you really vulnerable to depression and thoughts of suicide.  

I believe this course will really benefit youth who are struggling with mental illness, or who have someone in their lives that is living with mental illness. Being a youth myself, I know what that’s like. It will also be great for teachers and social workers who work with the students every day and can see the signs.

I plan to be delivering this course for many more years to come, so that I can help others who struggle with mental illness. Doing this work also keeps me positive and mentally healthy.

About the author

Shelby is an 18–year-old recent high school graduate, who has taken a few business courses at the College of the Rockies. She has been a highland dancer for seven years, and last year became an associate dance teacher. Shelby lives in Cranbrook with her parents and three dogs


  1. Since this article was written, CMHA Kootenays has changed their education program. The Mental Illness First Aid program has been replaced by Mental Health First Aid, which is a very similar program. Modified versions such as the one Shelby describes may continue to be delivered.