Sharing the Stopping the Stigma Experience

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Stopping the Stigma: Sharing My Experience

Submitted by Erin on June 8, 2011 - 3:17pm
I turned 25 last weekend. It was also a chance to celebrate 5 years of being in recovery. I remember eating my 20th birthday cake in the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) inpatient unit, days before I left the hospital for the last time. I never thought I'd be here today: alive and well, a soon-to-be university graduate, and a volunteer with the Mood Disorders Association's Stop the Stigma, telling my story to thousands of Toronto high school students and the people who care about them. The Mood Disorders Association gave me much-needed hope when they spoke at my school, when I was in grade 12, and now I have the chance to pass it on.

Each time I speak, I remind myself of the reason I'm here: Somewhere in the audience are several young people, who feel isolated in a daily struggle with anxiety, depression, or mania; with psychosis, self-harm, or suicidal thoughts. I want to tell them I've been there. I lived with mental illness for ten years. I know what it's like to suffer like this, and how hard it is when you're still just a kid, still trying to get a handle on this thing called life. I know what it's like to feel ashamed, hopeless, and out of control. I also know that it can get better.

I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder when I was ten years old. I was bullied in elementary school and rejected in junior high. By the time I got to high school, I was painfully shy and my self-esteem was in the toilet. It wasn't long before I started sinking into a deep depression, and a year after graduation I tried to kill myself.

This is not a story that's easy to tell. Because of the stigma that still exists, I take the chance of having doors closed on me for talking about my mental illness. But talking about it is exactly what needs to be done, if we want to change the attitudes that perpetuate this stigma in the first place. By talking about it, we're opening doors for all those children and teenagers out there, who may have never thought it was okay to speak up, who may desperately want help but have no idea where to turn. By sharing my story, I want to give them hope. I want to shatter the silence that keeps them prisoners in their own minds, and tell them that they deserve health and happiness, that they can get their lives back, and that giving up is never the answer.

This was my first year with Stop the Stigma, and the impact was amazing. Over and over I kept thinking to myself: 'I wish every school was participating in something like this!' Mental health is one of the most important issues facing today's youth, but unfortunately, it's been one of the least talked about. I'm so excited to be a part of the movement that's helping to change that. Many students approached me after the presentations, to share their personal struggles and express their desire for help. I was so impressed by the courage of these remarkable young people, reaching out from a place of despair and self-doubt to grab hold of the lifeline of hope. Some agreed to talk to a counselor for the very first time. Others renewed their commitment to continue with treatment and therapy, after hearing how important this was, and continues to be, in my own recovery.

Bringing mental health awareness into the schools also gave teachers the opportunity to have an open dialogue about these issues with their students. I heard about one class that discussed the phenomenon of self-harm, after attending their school's assembly. Other teachers felt more equipped to incorporate coping skills into the curriculum. And students felt more comfortable talking openly about mental illness and stigma, with each other and with the adults in their lives. Many had friends and family members that were showing symptoms of a mood disorder, and learning more about these illnesses gave them the confidence to help and support the people they care about.

What excites me most about Stop the Stigma is the number of lives we touch along the way. For so many, these assemblies and school events were full of life-changing moments. Each person who learns something new, who gains insight, empathy, and understanding, who makes the decision to reach out for help, all these people go on to touch more and more lives, in an incredible ripple effect with a far-reaching impact. I'm so honoured to be a part of it. After so many years of suffering, I've been able to turn a profoundly negative experience into something positive and inspiring, something that changes many lives, including my own. It's by far the best thing I've ever done.

Teens teach Stop the Stigma of mental illness

Wednesday May 18, 2011
Tamara Shepard
May 18, 2011

Depression and social anxiety began stalking Asante Haughton at 14 when he moved with his single mother and older brothers to Regent Park.

His mother's war against several mental illnesses helped conspire to find the formerly sociable teen isolating himself in his bedroom playing video games like Off Road Fury and Super Mario World.

Haughton's isolation increased after two men from the suicide hotline knocked on his door. Paramedics rushed his mother to hospital. Prescribed antidepressants, and in and out of hospital, Haughton's mother maintained two jobs to support her family.

But her paranoia grew. So did the voices. Later, when his mother drank only tea, stopped eating and barely slept, her concerned sons called 911. At 5'10", her weight had plummeted to 85 pounds. Doctors told Haughton his mother would have died within a week without their intervention.

Doctors diagnosed her with depression with psychotic features, bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder. Haughton described his mother's six-week hospitalization as the "lone bright time" then in his life. His mother was getting help. Now he could focus on his own issues.

"I was tired of being lonely, tired of feeling like a loser, tired of not wanting to get up in the morning. I was just tired of everything," the 25-year-old University of Toronto psychology grad told a captive audience of about 400 Grade 11 students Tuesday morning at Bishop Allen Academy Catholic Secondary School.

Bishop Allen hosted Haughton as its keynote speaker during a mental health awareness assembly, one of a number of Stop the Stigma Week events at the south-central Etobicoke school.

Stop the Stigma is a partnership between the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario and the Toronto Catholic District School Board that creates awareness of and provides early intervention for depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and psychosis among teenagers. Signs and symptoms of the mood disorders typically begin at age 14 or 15, the association reported.

"Ashamed" of his issues, Haughton forewent therapists. Instead, he watched TV's Dr. Phil.

Only later did he realize battling his issues on his own, without professional help or support, was the wrong choice.

"I didn't know much about depression and how to deal with it," he recalled. "I don't think I even realized I was depressed. I just thought I had low self-esteem. I might not have even gotten better. If I'd gotten help earlier, I might have saved myself years of feeling miserable. But it was the stigma that stopped me.

"I felt meeting my issues would make people not like me. I thought it would make me not like myself. The stigma made me feel ashamed and embarrassed and discriminated against and not as good as other people. Looking back, I wish I'd had something like Stop the Stigma Week at my school. Maybe then I would have felt more comfortable opening up about my issues and getting the help I needed sooner, instead of isolating and trying to do it all myself."

One in five young people is diagnosed with a mood disorder. Less than two-thirds of them seek help, Mood Disorder Association of Ontario reported. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15- to 24-year-olds, the association also reports.

In Grade 12, Haughton won Athlete of the Year. Still depressed, now also feeling social anxiety and fearful of crowds, Haughton wrote his first of three suicide letters. He didn't take his life, he said, because he couldn't afford a gun.

Studying psychology in university and making a friend saved him. He learned about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and applied it to himself, replacing his negative, self-critical, limiting thoughts with positive, self-affirming ones.

"I realized I wasn't abnormal. I wasn't messed up. I wasn't a loser or ugly or worthless. No. I had an illness. I was depressed. But it wasn't my fault. It could be fixed."

Haughton also learned to "neutralize" his depression through exercise, playing basketball, socializing, and constant monitoring of his self-talk to ensure it remained positive.

He started to see a counsellor. He has never taken antidepressants.

Today, he lives with his girlfriend on the 25th floor of a condo, has a job he loves, his mother completely recovered from her illnesses.

"Looking back, I feel like I've come a long way," Haughton told students. "I've beaten poverty and depression. My life is good. But I still have my suicide letters. They're a reminder of where I once was and where I don't ever want to be again. They're a warning of where I potentially could be if I slip up and stop putting in the work I need to keep myself healthy. Recovery is a lifelong process. But I'm glad to say - I'm happy."

Stop the Stigma Week aims to encourage Bishop Allen students to talk openly about mental health and to teach tolerance and intervention.

"Kids often say they don't want to talk (to me) because their friend will get mad," guidance counsellor Caroline Kassabian, co-lead on the project, said of students concerned about a friend's mental health. "I tell them, 'they may get mad. They'll get over it. You could save their life.' Once a person is talking about it and addressing the problem, they're grateful."

Signs of mood disorders in teens could include missing a lot of school, loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed, being apathetic about doing poorly in school, isolation and anger.

Parents also need to learn to take seriously signs of mood disorders in their children.â?¨"Sometimes, I'll tell a parent their son or daughter seems depressed. 'Don't worry. We'll take care of it,' they sometimes say. It's like any illness. Parents need to be open and know it's not their fault or their child's fault," Kassabian said.

Carina Kresic is one of 10 students, ages 15 to 18, on the school's Stop the Stigma Week organizing committee. It is the second year the school has hosted the week.

"We want to raise awareness about mental health so people don't feel stigmatized," said Kresic, 18. "If people understand what someone's going through, they can help them or help them get help."

Bishop Allen Academy joins Chaminade College School, a Catholic boys' secondary school in the Jane Street-Lawrence Avenue West area, as alumni schools championing the school board's Stop the Stigma Week. Those students trained peers at 10 other Catholic high schools across Toronto to host their own Stop the Stigma Week in the upcoming school year.

Mood Disorders Association of Ontario staff spoke with all the staff at Bishop Allen.

Sheila Gilkinson, Student Success lead teacher at the Catholic school board, said she would like to see the mental health awareness knowledge expand in to more schools. "It's an important piece for teachers to recognize the signs of mental health issues in students in their class," Gilkinson said. "For them to understand it's not a lack of trying sometimes. It's an absolute inability for the student to get there (academically).

"We want to put (mood disorders) on par with any other disease. We need to keep kids in the (school) system. Asante stayed in school. That's what kept him in life."

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