With one-in-five people diagnosed with a mental illness in their lives, and with the onset of most mental illnesses occurring shortly after puberty in adolescence, raising awareness for mental illness within the teenage population is pertinent.
For these reasons, Nancy Daley, who works at the Canadian Mental Health Association office here in Fort Frances, goes around to each of the schools to spread the word on mental illnesses—aiming to dispel the myths and stigmas that often arise in conjunction with any talk about mental illness.
Why this type of illness tends to crop up in adolescent years is still unknown. However, with much careful observation, it is very clear it is the truth.
Daley speculates the most likely reason for teenagers developing mental illnesses is because of the pressure that most find themselves in.
“Teenagers are finding themselves at the age when there may be family issues like divorce or having parents remarry, siblings may be going off to university, boyfriends and girlfriends are mixed in there, kids are involved in curling, golf, hockey, football, swimming, singing, music, plus the added pressure to excel in school, and they have to decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives a lot earlier,” she cited.
“Then there is the choice of whether or not they should smoke or drink or do drugs, or have sex.
“Some kids just can’t handle all of this,” Daley stressed. “Just like some parents and adults can’t.”
She explained mental illnesses are part genetic disposition, but also can be largely environmental. Environments where stress and pressure are barraging their lives, a person’s resilience and self-esteem can be negatively impacted.
Daley noted 15 percent of the youth in Canada (1.2 million) are suffering from a mental illness, that the highest rates of depression fall in the under-20 category, that suicide is the second-leading cause of death in adolescents (falling second only to motor vehicle accidents,) and that these types of illnesses are really not as uncommon as people think.
She really stressed the worst part here isn’t the mental illness but rather the stigma that goes along with it.
“. . . it is not the end of the world. We know that mental illness can be treated, and that they can be very happy and successful and productive in their lives.
“But we also know that the stigma against these illnesses prevent people from getting help,” Daley said. “People are afraid. They are embarrassed. They don’t go and look for treatment.
“To a child being different is bad and sometimes the stigma of being different is worse than the illness itself.”
Daley said it’s important to realize that if one-in-five people are suffering directly from the illness itself, then four-in-five people are affected in day-to-day life.
With such a high rate of occurrence, the person suffering could be our siblings, parents, children, friends, teachers. And for every one of them who does not get help, that is four people who are affected by that, as well.
“We are all affected by mental illness, so we all have a responsibility to recognize it as an illness.”
Daley said that just as we are not ashamed to go to the doctor to be diagnosed with strep throat or the common cold, and just as we would learn everything possible if we were diagnosed with cancer or diabetes, we should not be afraid to go to the doctor when suffering from symptoms of a mental illness.
And we should be willing to learn and talk about the problems we have.
However, mental illnesses often can be so subtle that it may be difficult to even know you have one. Daley described realizing a mental illness as noticing any sort of change in behaviour or personality.
These changes can include, but are not limited to, withdrawing from favourite activities, withdrawing from social situations, increased or frequent use of drugs and/or alcohol, giving away loved personal belongings, and seemingly unexplained weight loss.
Any changes in behaviour—even sleeping more—can be indicators of mental distress.
The only problem is that some of these symptoms may just be a result of being an average surly adolescent. The key is to talk to someone if you notice these changes in yourself or in someone you know.
Talking about problems can help out a lot.
Another important step to take in realizing you may be suffering from a mental illness is to make an appointment with a doctor so you can be properly diagnosed.
Daley insisted, though, that the most important thing is to never give up. To not give up on yourself and to not give up on others that may be suffering.
Her dream is to see the day when a mental illness no longer is differentiated from another illness. She longs to see where people are as unperturbed to go to the doctor for a mental illness as they are to go for strep throat; where having a mental illness only will be seen as an illness to be treated.
The first step to achieve this, she believes, is continued dialogue and education on the subject.
Daley said the younger, the better when it comes to educating people on the effects of mental illness.
Only under these circumstances will the stigma lessen—and will people stop differentiating the physically ill with the mentally ill.
Editor’s noted: This is Mental Health Awareness Week.