Last week, police intervened to prevent a suicide pact among thirty young people, mostly aboriginal, in downtown Vancouver.
In early October, 15-year-old Amanda Todd committed suicide after experiencing extensive bullying, harassment and assault from her peers. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth people in Canada. These kinds of stories and statistics shouldn’t be normal for Canadian young people. Yet despite news reports on specific incidents and the constant, low-level noise about the latest crisis among teens – eating disorders, self-harm, and cyber-bullying all come to mind – young Canadians are still waiting on a systemic review of the support available for youth with mental illness.
A new approach is desperately needed. Somewhere between 10 and 20 per cent of Canadian young people are living with mental illness. Despite these high numbers, only 20 per cent of children who need mental health support are receiving it.
This is not a problem that has emerged suddenly, from out of nowhere. Some 80 per cent of mental disorders first become apparent during adolescence. We could be using this knowledge to build targeted supports to identify mental illness early. Instead, we’re letting our young people founder.
To add to this frustration, it’s well accepted that early intervention increases the effectiveness of mental health treatments and improves quality of life for people with mental illness. In not developing a comprehensive youth mental health strategy, we are failing Canada’s young people at a time when they could most benefit from additional support.
However, the problem isn’t merely in our institutions. Mental illness is still stigmatized and misunderstood. It’s already difficult for adults to find care and support; for young people, who are dismissed as “just going through a phase” or not taken seriously because of their age, it can be even harder.
Most conversations about mental illness inevitably lead to discussions of stigma. But that one word, so all-encompassing, can also hide how the experience of stigma is lived. Our casual language – “that’s insane,” “what a nutjob,” “she’s completely mental” – uses mental illness as a shorthand for things that are wrong, bad, or irrational. Depictions of mental illness in media show characters that are violent or completely unable to function in society. Harmful assumptions about mental illness are commonplace and often go unchallenged. Taken together, these brief and pedestrian interactions with the world can create an overwhelming impression of a society that does not have space for people with mental illness.
This experience of stigma is one of the biggest barriers preventing people from accessing needed mental health supports. It’s a terrible catch-22: acknowledge your mental illness and face up to entrenched stereotypes, or keep quiet and isolate yourself from support you need.
The experience of mental illness can also be shaped by other factors. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people experience higher rates of mental illness – most likely because of the prejudice and discrimination they face for their sexual orientations. Transgender people face particularly high risks: 77 per cent of transgender people in Ontario have seriously considered suicide, and 43 per cent have attempted suicide.
For members of the LGBTQ community dealing with mental illness, the difficulties of seeking care are compounded by the need to find care providers who understand the unique challenges faced by this demographic. For instance, LGBTQ students report higher rates of verbal bullying and physical harassment than their straight peers – and adults charged with shaping school policy sometimes contribute to the problem. Effective care for LGBTQ youth dealing with mental illness has to include recognition of the ways discrimination shapes their experience.
Aboriginal people also face particular challenges when it comes to mental illness. The aftermath of colonialism and ongoing racism can make it more difficult for aboriginal people to access mental health care that serves their needs. Deliberate policies of displacement and assimilation served to weaken community ties and isolate individuals from support networks. Aboriginal communities in Canada are actively rebuilding, but the effects of the past can still be felt.
Providing culturally appropriate mental health care to aboriginal communities is incredibly important. The suicide rate among aboriginal youth is estimated at five to six times the rate among their non-aboriginal peers. Any strategy addressing mental health care interventions for Canadian youth ought to make aboriginal youth a priority.
Being a teenager is already hard. For years, we each struggle to define ourselves as individuals, while at the same time we’re trying to find a place where we can fit in the world. The lack of accessible mental health resources and continued stigma puts an even heavier burden on some young people when they’re already struggling with the day-to-day experience of growing up.
We need a new mental health strategy for young people; but we also need to confront the ways that we stigmatize mental illness, and take steps as individuals to help ensure that people with mental illness can feel understood and accepted.