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January 27, 2017

Let’s Keep Talking

Fostering Community

In a single day, 131,705,010 interactions took place, 8,088,496 tweets were sent, and $6,585,250 was raised, all for Bell Let’s Talk, a global initiative to break the silence and reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. What an incredible achievement in support of a very real problem that impacts, at some point in time, every family in Canada. My hat goes off to all those who supported this incredibly worthwhile initiative.

For anyone unfamiliar with the statistics surrounding young people and mental illness, let me assure you that the picture painted is very bleak. In the largest youth survey ever completed in Canada, more than 100,000 Toronto District School Board middle and high school students reported levels of anxiety, worry, and concern for the future that mental health care professionals found both unanticipated and alarming. We know from Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health reports that suicide is the second-leading cause of death amongst those aged 15-24, and mental health disorders in youth account for the second highest hospital care expenditure.

Talking about mental health must involve more than a one-day conversation. It needs to be part of an open-school dialogue that is championed by school leaders. Children and adolescents, particularly those suffering from mental health difficulties, can be vulnerable. It’s unrealistic to ask them to lead the way in this conversation or to set themselves apart from their peers at a time in their lives when “fitting in” is their life’s mission. I believe that adults should scaffold these conversations for students by sharing their own experiences and opening up about their own moments of struggle. So I’ll start by sharing a bit of my own story.

I was an anxious child. Always thinking, always watching, always worried. Bright but tentative – a wee Chicken Little, waiting every moment for the sky to fall. I don’t think my teachers ever knew. How could they? I was too worried to tell them I was worried. My homework was always done (because what awful thing might happen if it wasn’t). My assignments were always complete (because what would the teacher think of me if they weren’t). A bad word never came out of my mouth (because I was certain a lightning bolt of divine retribution would strike me dead). My early report cards portrayed a model student but my mother saw a different child at home. I was sometimes sad, teary-eyed, prone to meltdowns, and angry with my little sister (who seemed to hop, skip and jump through daily life without a care in the world). Lots of tummy aches, headaches or “I don’t know where but somewhere” aches got in the way of play dates, sleepovers, and birthday party invitations. It wasn’t as if I didn’t experience moments of happiness or joy. Of course, I did. But they were often overshadowed by an illogical, tough to navigate emotional weather system of intermittent storms, icy patches, and the occasional tornado.

Adolescence brought a whole new set of challenges, but a few close friends, a number of remarkable teachers who encouraged me to take risks, and the ability to find solace and understanding in books, writing, and music helped me cope. Despite a somewhat moody and angst-filled period around age 16 that involved a lot of black clothing, existential literature, a penchant for art films, and an incongruous love of The Carpenters, I somehow muddled through and emerged intact from that dark storm cloud we call adolescence.

Perhaps it’s my own early experience that causes me to seek out and keep a vigilant eye on the quiet ones in our halls. Not all of them are struggling, but many of them are. But then again, the math genius, the star athlete, the Prefect, virtually any child I meet in the hallway could be struggling. There is no category of student who is immune from an assault on their mental health – an assault caused by the pressure of changing societal expectations for girls, a social media explosion, and a world where bad news (sometimes terrifying news) travels at the speed of a Tweet. The research indicates that the majority of our young people will struggle with mental health difficulties at some point during childhood or adolescence, and some will experience difficulties that progress to the level of a mental health disorder. So we’re not talking about just a handful of students in our halls.

Children and teens need many things when they’re going through a tough time. But most of all, I believe they need hope – hope that the storm clouds will dissipate and that sunny days lie ahead. Hope in knowing that they’re not alone, that someone else – their Head of School, their gym teacher, their pastor, their uncle, anyone important in their life – has been there and knows what it feels like. Hope that it won’t always be this way, that talking to people can help (even if it’s the last thing they want to do), and that many of their peers likely feel the same way but are working hard not to show it. They won’t know these things; they won’t have such hope if we don’t tell them. So please, if you have a story to tell, dust it off the shelf and get it out there. Keep the conversation going, and give the young people in our lives the hope they so desperately need.

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