When North Delta Secondary student Tara Joshi began having suicidal thoughts, she dared not breathe a word of it to anybody.
She knew that students who are publicly known to be depressed to the point where they harm themselves or talk about suicide can be called “psycho” or “crazy” or branded an “emo kid.”
“Because nobody really spoke about it in my community, it was considered something very bad,” Joshi said.
Her depression and anxiety disorder went untreated for so long that she developed panic attacks. Unable to stop the darkness from encircling her, Joshi felt lost and alone.
At the age of 14 she decided to kill herself.
From the depths of that cry for help came a reason to keep living. Joshi says that by talking to other youth about her problems, she began the long road to healing and treating her mental illness. Today, the 17-year-old is director of youth engagement for the organization Here and Now, which helps youth 25 and under deal with mental illness.
“I think that’s why mental health goes untreated for so long, because there’s such a stigma that surrounds it,” Joshi said. “A lot of people aren’t very comfortable talking about it.”
Here and Now was founded by 18-yearold Vancouver resident Isabella Thompson, who met Joshi at the Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre at B.C. Children’s Hospital. Thompson says she reached out to Joshi with the idea of building an organization where youth could deliver mental-health services to other young people.
Thompson was bullied in school not only because of her struggles with mental illness but congenital nystagmus syndrome, which causes her eyes to move involuntarily from side to side. She was ostracized from her peer group and became depressed and anxious at a young age.
“When I started growing up, I developed an eating disorder, I started self-harming, it does get really bad really quickly,” Thompson said. “And the worse that your struggles get, the easier it is for your peers to pick it out.”
Thompson had to change schools to escape her tormentors, but the suicidal thoughts followed her. She says that the health-care system helps with intervention for suicide but rarely for prevention.
“You can take someone (to the hospital) who’s acutely ill or in a suicidal headspace and hold them for 72 hours on suicide watch. But a lot of the youth, and even the adults, don’t have that care beforehand.”
Thompson says going to a hospital to see a psychiatrist and then being committed to a ward with strangers can be a frightening experience, which may cause people to hide
Joshi says movies and popular culture depict people with mental illness in a negative way that further alienates them from treatment.
“So nobody wants to expose themselves to that if they know they’re going to get shot down immediately,” she said.
Tyler Black, medical director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Emergency unit with B.C. Mental Health and Substance Use Services, says mental illnesses are often discovered when a child is disruptive but there are many youth who hide it from their parents and peers.
According to the McCreary Centre Society, the main reason for not seeking help is that youth don’t want their parents to know. Number two is the hope that the problem will go away on its own.
Black says the social stigma around selfharm is diminishing because it’s become more common among youth.
“But certainly the labels of being ’emo’ or ‘dramatic’ or not really having any real problems – or one of the more common ones on the internet right now is First World Problems – is a theme that comes up quite a bit for the kids and it certainly adds to their distress.”
Black says one of the core issues with selfinjury and suicidal thinking is stress from the hectic lifestyles of the Y2K generation.
Joshi says getting young people to talk about depression and self-harm is the first step to getting help.
“People feel like they can’t really talk to anyone about it,” she says. “They feel that if you have a mental illness you’re stuck in this hole for the rest of your life. And that’s not the case.”
Joshi recently sought the financial aid of Delta North MLA Scott Hamilton to attend a youth conference in Ottawa to talk to other young Canadians about mental health. After meeting Joshi and Thompson, he was determined to help, Hamilton said.
“I think there’s a lot to be said for peer counselling with youth who have actually gone through a mental-health issue,” he said.
Hamilton recently helped arrange the pair to appear as a delegation before Delta council to speak about their organization. Council moved to grant $1,500 to help them attend the Unite & Ignite conference in Ottawa last weekend (March 27 to 30).
“It’s through advocacy by people like Isabella and Tara that we are going to bring to the forefront all of these issues to the point where we’re going to acknowledge how important it is that we deal with mental-health issues in our community,” Hamilton said.
Here and Now (online at www.facebook. com/hereandnowbc.ca) was founded just last October, but Joshi says they’ve already received positive feedback from young people who are able to express their own stories and feelings of mental health and mental illness, addictions, bullying and sexuality in a safe environment.
“It is education which helps people cope and helps them find ways to recover,” she said.