“Imagine driving down a dark road in pouring rain, then discovering your windshield wipers don’t work. That’s how my head feels all the time.”
A year ago, former Seaway student David (“Davi”) Freire took his own life. He had struggled with bipolar disorder for most of his youth. In the end, the darkness won.
On Tuesday, October 14, David’s mother, Augusta Waddell, joined Angele D’Alessio of the Canadian Mental Health Association, to make two presentations to the students and teachers at Seaway District High School in Iroquois.
Both D’Alessio and Waddell firmly believe that fostering good mental health, and offering treatments and understanding to young people coping with mental illness, are essential – the sooner, the better. As Augusta Waddell pointed out, the first signs of her son’s debilitating mental illness appeared when he was barely six years old.
“One in five people are affected by mental illness,” D’Alessio told the students. “The problem is far more widespread than many people realize. Illnesses which often specifically target young people include anxiety, stress and depression. Over 40 per cent of mental health workers’ case loads involve youth.”
The October 18 presentations to the grades 7-8 intermediate school and to grades 9-12, were interactive, lively and involving. Again and again, D’Alessio emphasized the message, “Get help. Mental illness is treatable. Recovery is possible.”
D’Alessio pointed out that education about mental illnesses is currently desperately lacking in most Ontario schools.
In 2001, the Upper Canada District School Board agreed to include a mandatory mental health unit of one week in the health component of grade 11. However, unless a student actually takes that particular grade 11 physical education course, there are no other mandatory programs available in schools.
“We need to expand workshops and presentations so they reach all kids in the high school,” D’Alessio said. “We have to reach into the elementary schools too, to teach children how to deal with stress and anxiety. Coping abilities need to be ingrained at an early age.”
In the meantime, she pointed out that there are places for troubled teens and their families to turn, including Help Lines and mental health units in many villages and towns.
There is currently a satellite office, tied to the Main office in Cornwall, of the Canadian Mental Health Association right in the Morrisburg mall. Case managers Linda Lloyd and Stephane Fortin are available for those who need support.
However, the true realities of ignoring or stigmatizing mental illnesses were strongly brought home to the students of Seaway when Augusta Waddell told the story of her son, David’s, struggle to cope with his mental illness.
“By age six, Davi was sad and anxious, finding it hard to sleep. Although for a time he seemed to cope well, smiling and taking part in lots of activities and sports, the down times began to increase,” Waddell told the students. “By grade 10 at Seaway, Davi was avoiding his family, his friends and stopping activities he had always loved.”
David struggled daily with his bipolar illness, trying to hide how he was feeling, trying to keep friends and fellow students from finding out. Like so many young people, he was ashamed of what he was going through.
Society is neither understanding nor forgiving of mental illness. This, essentially, is part of the problem.
“Hiding mental disorders because of the stigma can be dangerous,” Waddell told students, “as it prevents many people from seeking help. Many are afraid to admit to a mental illness because they see it as a sign of weakness. We need to be open to the pain which most afflicted with mental illness feel.”
It is too late for David, Waddell concluded, but not too late for other young people to get the help they need. And it is never too late for friends and family to reach out and offer support to a person who is going through the trauma.
“There is no health without mental health,” Augusta Waddell assured the Seaway students. “If you are suffering in silence, I urge you to speak to someone, the school counsellor, a teacher, a parent, a friend, and get the help you need, because the help is out there.”