Reprinted from the "Young People" issue of Visions Journal, 2013, 9 (2), pp. 5-7
Twenty per cent of Canadians will personally experience mental illness1—and I am one of them. Unlike most disabling physical illness, mental illness begins very early in life. Half of all lifetime cases begin by age 14; three quarters have begun by age 24.2 My story of mental illness began at age six and I only found help, by accident, at age 17.
Youth in BC face challenges in accessing mental health services. There is great inconsistency across the province in what is available to youth in their home communities. Even the definition of youth varies from program to program; sometimes youth ‘age out’ at 18, other times at 29. This inconsistency is made worse by a lack of focused and well-thought-out funding. Often, there are competing agencies that provide the same services in the same geographic area, and there are entrenched organizations that eat up the funding and there is no room for innovation.
The truth is that mental health care in Canada is in critical condition. We can’t simply build enough beds to solve British Columbia’s youth mental health crisis. Hospitals cost millions to build, and specialists take years to train. As we continue to develop a richer base of professionals and specialists, we also need to develop community-based early intervention and support programs. For youth, community- based services in the schools makes eminent sense.
Peer support can be part of the solution to the shortage of professionals. But it’s important to make this distinction: lived experience without training, in a majority of situations, is often inadequate. We wouldn’t assume an ability to perform surgery simply from experiencing surgery. Someone with lived experience can become an excellent spokesperson and encourager, but they’re soon limited in crisis intervention or direct support roles.
A second distinction is that helping shouldn’t be limited to doing the work on behalf of youth, but rather should include youth in the process. It’s too common in our society that solutions are more focused on adult intervention and less focused on including youth in the process. Although, as adults we may have experienced the situation earlier in life, that doesn’t mean we are the experts on contemporary youth. We need to support and mentor youth as they become leaders in their own solution.
“Research indicates that when children and youth are involved in their plans of care and decision-making that affects them, they are more motivated to achieve successful outcomes for themselves and their families.”3
Research and statistics can create convincing arguments, but it’s what I’ve lived that creates my passion to work with youth.
My lived experience
As a young child, I was described as outgoing, friendly, creative and caring. However, none of these attributes prepared me for life after my parents’ divorce when I was six years old.
At first I thought I was just having bad dreams, nightmares made up in my head, where shadow monsters would enter my room late at night and touch me in places I knew was wrong. The actions that haunted my sleep began to infect my day. In our “special time,” my mother dictated her daily fears and frustrations, hitting me as she vented, then confusing the situation by adding love and affection to the point of sexual abuse. She controlled me through fear. Her words were simple: “Tell anyone about what happens at home and I will kill you.”
By grade 12 I didn’t even feel human any more. I was so battered and bruised I didn’t see any way out of what I was going through. But ironically, what helped set me free was the fact that I had become completely desensitized to the actions of my mother because the abuse was so routine. One morning before school, when my peers were talking about their punishments for not doing prior homework, without thinking I uttered the words, “My mom hits me.” As a result, I was supported by these friends to tell school staff, which quickly helped me get free from the routine of physical and sexual abuse and begin my road to recovery.
When I spoke those four words, “My mom hits me,” I wasn’t thinking of how long I’d have to wait for a specialist, the stress-inducing facilities I’d need to access, or the immense cost of private therapy. All I wanted at that point was to not feel alone, to know I wasn’t the only one, to know what happened was wrong and that it wasn’t my fault.
What I needed was a community.
SpeakBOX: creating community; promoting health literacy
Community comes in many forms: one-on-one, groups, face-to-face and online. I believe community is all about fostering relationships; it gives a feeling of companionship, and hope.
SpeakBOX is a society in development that uses digital tools and in-person programs to promote physical and sexual health on top of mental health and suicide prevention. These tools and programs are designed to operate in schools, with the goal of building community. Our vision is that every young person will become equipped to know what to do and who to go to if someone they know is struggling with mental health issues.
SpeakBOX is working to bring a program similar to The Youth as Gatekeepers (YAG) program to Vancouver and surrounding cities. YAG is described by its program coordinator Fred Chou as a mental health literacy and suicide prevention program. It’s currently offered in the Chilliwack School District, is sponsored by the FORCE Society for Kids’ Mental Health and supported by the Chilliwack Ministry for Children and Family Development.
The goal of the project is to prepare students to deal with difficult conversations spontaneously, as they arise. YAG works with small groups of interested students within each school, supporting, educating and fostering their leadership skills. The students become informed about mental health matters, assist in reducing stigma related to mental illness, and know who to talk to when there are concerns. They also use their knowledge to collaboratively create presentations for the other students in their schools and for peers in the surrounding community.
In my role speaking publicly about mental health over the past five years, at high schools across the Fraser Valley, the BC Quality Forum Health Talks and the Building A Mindful Community youth summit, I’ve had many opportunities to speak with young people. What I’ve found is that no matter what their situation is, these young people share the same desires I had when I started my journey of recovery. They want to feel they belong and are heard; they want to gain understanding about themselves.
My vision is to make SpeakBOX a provincial organization, taking our team of speakers to schools across the province. The speakers will share their story of lived experience and will invite students to get involved with our website through blogging and through our online forum (in development). Students can collaborate online with other students across the province to implement health literacy events in their schools and be supported by mentors within the SpeakBOX team.
The World Health Organization identifies several protective factors in reducing youth risk for mental health challenges. These include self-esteem, social support of family and friends, social and gender equality, and scholastic achievement.4 To create a sustainable health system for tomorrow, we need to look beyond hospital walls. We need to include young people in the discussion as we develop these important, community-based resources to support young people—and those who support them—through every stage of recovery.
About the authorAidan, 26, is the founder of SpeakBOX, an organization dedicated to bringing awareness and innovation to mental health. Aidan has experienced recovery in both the youth and adult mental health systems. His experience fuels his passion as a public speaker who is a survivor of sexual abuse and mental illness. A society in development, SpeakBOX will use web and social media tools, as well as an in-school program that encourages youth to lead the conversation on mental health as they develop leadership and communication skills
- Canadian Mental Health Association. (2013). Fast facts about mental illness. www.cmha.ca/media/fast-facts-about-mental-illness/
- National Institutes of Health. (2005). Mental illness exacts heavy toll, beginning in youth [press release]. www.nimh.nih.gov/news/science-news/2005/mental-illness-exacts-heavy-toll-beginning-in-youth.shtml.
- Cook, P., Blanchet-Cohen, N. & Hart, S. (2004). Children as partners: Child participation promoting social change. Victoria: University of Victoria.
- World Health Organization, Secretariat for the Development of a Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan. (2012). Risks to mental health: An overview of vulnerabilities and risk factors [background paper]. www.who.int/mental_health/mhgap/risks_to_mental_health_EN_27_08_12.pdf.