Amanda Hicks has battled mental illness and drugs in her pursuit of a high school diploma.

When someone steps up to make a difference

For more than five years, the Chilliwack school district has consistently languished below the provincial average in graduating students.

In the 2009/10 school year, just 69 per cent of students made it to graduation – 11 per cent below the provincial average.

The Chilliwack Progress is putting faces to those numbers. This is part two of a four-part series.

***

Amanda Hicks has been trying to graduate for two years now, but parenting her mom has proved too much – academically and mentally.

At 18, she has a drug list the length of her arm, and an equally long record of stays in the psychiatric ward.

At 10 years old, when her parents split up, a friend’s mom gave her vodka.

“I drank quite a bit, quite a few glasses. I drank to get drunk. It was never a peer pressure thing for me. I was really stressed out and I really hated my life and I wanted to feel better.”

The drinking led to drugs – marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine, crystal meth, crack.

Amanda believes if there had been better people in her life, a better support system, more intuitive caring teachers, her life may not have gone the way it has.

“I just had bad people, bad friends, bad adults, nobody good in my life.”

Amanda’s mom had mental health issues. She repeatedly tried to commit suicide, was erratic with money, and did drugs.

Amanda had two younger brothers who needed a mother, needed someone to make their lunches, put them to bed, and care for them. Amanda tried to take on that role. She tried to keep the house clean, budget their finances, ensure there was food in the fridge. But more often than not it didn’t work out that way.

They didn’t have very much money for food, and yet her mom would demand crab legs and cake.

“She once wanted a banana cream pie, but I told her we didn’t have enough money for that, we needed sandwich meat and fruit. She threw a tantrum. She said you always get what you want, you get your bread, your milk, all these things, and I said, ‘Mom, those are necessities. It’s not like I’m getting treats, I’m getting these things so I can make lunches for the boys to take to school.’

“I was being the parent, but I’m not supposed to be the parent.”

Drugs became the relief.

“It wasn’t like I just did it on the weekend, I did it every single day.”

They weren’t hard to find. There was always someone in school selling them, and if she couldn’t get the drug she wanted there, her peers would know other sources.

“I would go to school and I would just be totally out of it and not be able to do what I was supposed to do and I would fall asleep because I hadn’t slept in so long. Everybody knew I was on drugs. I wasn’t really quiet about it, I talked about it a lot in the hallways and in class.”

At 14, she started dealing.

“No one ever said anything. Unless I got caught doing or selling drugs, they left me alone, didn’t do anything about it.”

In Grade 9, Amanda was kicked out of G.W. Graham middle secondary after she was caught snorting cocaine in the washroom. Five weeks later, she was allowed back, “because they found out my mom was in the psych ward and I guess they felt bad.”

A month later, she was kicked out again for smoking marijuana.

The next year, she was kicked out of Vedder middle for fighting.

By the time she got to Sardis secondary, Amanda’s life was out of control. The drugs no longer made her feel better, they made her sick. Her face was scabbed, she’d lost 15 pounds, and wouldn’t eat or sleep for two-week cycles.

“I was terrible, terrible into drugs. I was robbing people, stealing car stereos, doing terrible, terrible things to get my drugs. Drugs was the only thing that mattered. I didn’t care about anything else.”

Her critical situation was noticed by Mrs. Reitsma, Amanda’s learning assistance teacher at SSS. She got Amanda into detox.

For nearly two years, Amanda has been clean, but her struggles didn’t end. She started hearing voices, thought she was being controlled, tried committing suicide. She was involuntarily committed to the psychiatric ward after she purposely overdosed on prescription pills. She’s been in and out of psychiatric wards with stays ranging from two weeks to three and a half months. She’s been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression. One doctor suggested she was just trying to get attention.

Her education continued to suffer.

“When I’m really depressed or hearing voices, I can’t function. I’ll come to school for awhile, but I can’t function. I can’t do homework, I can’t do anything because I’m so depressed and tired and exhausted, and so then I just stop coming to school. And so even before I go to the hospital, I’ll already have missed a month of school, I’ll already have been failing. And then in the hospital, I’m missing a lot more school, and having to catch up when I get out.

“But the thing is, if I’m still feeling like shit when they let me out, like I was the last time, how am I going to look at that mountain of work, and be like, okay, let’s do it. If I’m still feeling depressed, I can’t do it.”

According to Fraser Health, mental health is the largest health-related problem for children, youth and young adults. This includes anxiety, ADHD, conduct disorder, depression, substance abuse, pervasive developmental disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, tourettes, eating disorders and bipolar disorder. Seventy-five per cent of all mental illness is diagnosed before the age of 25.

Amanda has been dealing with mental health since elementary school.

For two years, Amanda’s condition and the psychiatric ward stays have impeded her education. She’s essentially had to start over every semester. With just two courses remaining, she’s hoping this semester she’ll finally get to graduation.

“I have missed a lot of school, and I have been struggling recently with mental health again, so we will see if I make it.”

If she does, it will be Mrs. Reitsma she thanks.

“She cared. It made a huge difference, it definitely did, because she was the only teacher I ever met to ask why I was looking like that. And if she hadn’t, I never would have got to rehab. I never would have got help.”

A breakdown of youth mental health in B.C.

• Any disorder: 15%, 140,500 youth

• Any anxiety disorder: 6.5%, 60,900 youth

• Conduct disorder: 3.3%, 30,900 youth

• Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: 3.3%, 30,900 youth

• Depressive disorder: 2.1%, 19,700 youth

• Substance abuse: .8%, 7,500 youth

• Pervasive developmental disorder: .3%, 2,800 youth

• Obsessive compulsive disorder: .2%, 1,900 youth

• Schizophrenia: .1%, 900 youth

• Tourette’s: .1%, 900 youth

• Eating disorder: .1%, 900 youth

• Bipolar disorder: <.1%, <900 youth

~ Prevalence of Mental Disorders in Children and Youth, Ministry of Children and Family Development

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