Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge MP Dan Ruimy formed a youth council, which focused on mental health. Phil Melnychuk THE NEWS

Mental health a taboo word in school

Maple Ridge kids say it needs to be talked about

It’s 2017 and they’re still not talking about mental health in high schools.

The kids want to talk about it though.

They want the issues of mental health out in the open, so that students of any age can get help when they invariably encounter problems as they prepare for the big, wide world.

The way Maple Ridge secondary student Eva Cowley describes it, if you break your arm, doctors will fix it. But sometimes that arm can hurt for a long time after the break has healed. The same applies to mental health issues. Mental health problems that have beeen ‘solved,’ can re-appear at any time.

“The fixed broken leg always aches,” adds Dallas Taylor, a recent Samuel Robertson Technical grad. The remnants of that can last the rest of your life.

“You can always wake up in the morning and have a really sore leg, or you can always wake up in the morning and have a really bad day.”

Cowley and Taylor are part of MP Dan Ruimy’s constituency youth council which held a Youth Mental Health Townhall in May at the Ridge Meadows seniors activity centre. About 80 people showed up, although organizers would like to have seen more kids there.

Taylor, who graduated a few years ago, said the topic was never talked about during his school years. “I’d say in school, I heard little to nothing about mental health at all.

“They’re not teaching you about it and it’s just promoting this fear of mental illness.”

He remembers that students being anywhere near the school guidance counsellor’s office was forbidden terrority, lest another student even see someone passing by the office.

Instead, the subject should at least receive some attention during class time so kids gain some familiarity with the issue and lose their fear of it, and consequently are more able to reach out if they need help.

“If you help make everybody more knowledgeable about something, their first reaction isn’t going to be afraid of it or worried about it. Their first reaction is going to be, ‘Well, I know about this and I can react accordingly.’ ”

The more understanding, from an early age, about mental health, the more people will be willing to get help, he explained.

Erik Black, a Thomas Haney secondary grad, shares that view. During someone’s 13 years in the school system, there should at least be some attention given to mental health. Even teaching it one year would be better than nothing, he says.

Samuel Robertson Technical grad Gina Dhinsa, now in university, said the 10-person constituency youth council focused on the topic in the last few months in order to “shine a light” on what it’s like to be young and facing mental health issues. School-wide assemblies that bring in speakers help raise awareness and increase empathy for a while, but their impact fades after a few days.

“That’s something we need all of the time, not just one day,” Dhinsa said.

One of the biggest barriers they face when they’re thinking about getting help is what their friends will think.

Ruimy pointed out that during the last several months in which the youth council has focused on mental health, drugs never came into the conversation. But substance abuse is the end result of mental illness, added Dhinsa. “Unhealthy coping mechanisms,” added another.

Students added that if a struggling student does feel comfortable talking to someone, it may not necessarily be the student’s parents, as good as they may be. It may just be easier talking to a teacher or counsellor who can provide an objective view.

For example, Cowley had struggled with an eating disorder last year which she kept from her parents, until the day of the town hall meeting.

“I should have told them before announcing it to a roomful of people. The reason they didn’t know was that I was afraid of being judged. We need to change that stigma. We need to allow people who need help to actually feel like they can reach out for it.”

The town hall meeting heard that it’s not parents’ fault if kids don’t talk to them about their issues, and parents shouldn’t be surprised if that happens. Instead, just provide a safe environment where it’s easy to talk and don’t interrogate.

Ruimy said many kids struggle with anxiety, which he described as a huge issue.

“It’s the trigger points that most people don’t understand,” he said.

Four challenges were agreed upon during the Youth Mental Health Townhall: start talking about mental health at homes; get fellow students to have an open mind, to talk about mental health, put more attention on the issue from the education system, and create more mental health services within the health-care system.

School system

adds mental

health literacy

While recent or present high-school grads recall scant attention to education about mental health, the younger crop of students should find the topic easier to talk about.

Mental health literacy is now a significant component of physical education and health, from kindergarten through Grade 10, part of a new curriculum that has now been in place for one year, said an e-mail from the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school district.

“This embedding of mental health literacy in the curriculum is crucial for generating understanding and destigmatizing mental health issues,” the school district said.

And mental health always has been part of Planning 10, it points out.

Mental health awareness is also “embedded in the core competencies of the redesigned curriculum (in all curricular areas), and places a renewed focus in all schools on social and emotional learning,” said the district.

School counsellors also receive ongoing training, while the school district partners closely with community agencies such as the Youth Wellness Clinic at the Greg Moore Youth Centre, along with Child and Youth Mental Health.

School board chair Mike Murray agrees more needs to be done.

He said the school board in April wrote the federal Health Minister Jane Philpott on the topic, and plans to do the same once a health minister is appointed in B.C. The letter to the federal minister notes that there’s already a waiting list to see the psychiatrist one day a week at the recently opened Youth Wellness Centre in the Greg Moore Youth Centre.

“Schools obviously confront issues with young people every day.

“But we’re not funded to provide health services.”

Instead, those resources need to be available in the community.

School counsellors need the ability to refer kids to more intensive psychological help.

“So that’s what the challenge is.”

But he agrees more can be done simply to educate and inform about mental health in order to broaden the general awareness.

“Point taken. That is a legimate point to be made.”

The school district is working on that, so kids know where to go, and don’t feel isolated when dealing with issues. The school district works with families with special needs kids, including those with mental health issues, to help them in their education, he added.