May is Mental Health Awareness Month in Canada. During this time, the Creston Valley will be increasing its mental health awareness with an information display in Overwaitea Foods and various activities with children in our local schools. Residents will also see a green ribbon display theme around town. The ribbon is a symbol of mental health awareness to end the stigma and increase compassion and understanding.
While this article recognizes national Mental Health Awareness Month, it is also intended as the start of a mental health literacy campaign that will be ongoing in the Creston Valley. This is part of the legacy work of the B.C. Child and Youth Mental Health Substance Use Collaborative. The focus is on the mental health and wellness of children and youth, and the points mentioned here are specific to this demographic.
The outcomes of a recent national survey on attitudes toward mental health indicate that there is still widespread misunderstanding about what mental health is and what mental illness is, so let’s start with a definition derived from the World Health Organization and the Canadian Mental Health Association:
Mental health is a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.
Mental illness is a recognized, medically diagnosable illness that results in the significant impairment of an individual’s cognitive, affective or relational abilities. Mental disorders result from biological, developmental, and/or psychosocial factors, and can be managed through specific treatment approaches.
Despite an increase in focus on the importance of mental health, there remains a stigma toward those who experience mental illness, which prevents many people from feeling they can talk about it openly and find the help they need. This can result in symptoms that start as mild (often dismissed as irrelevant), moving to moderate and then severe before people get practical help. Knowledge about maintenance of mental health and emotional wellness plays an important role in reducing the development of mental illness as well as reducing treatment and recovery time. Reducing the stigma toward mental health illness starts by exposing the myths through delivery of correct education and service access information.
The Canadian Mental Health Association provides the following statistics on the mental health of children and youth in B.C.: Approximately one in seven young people in B.C. will experience some sort of mental illness at some point, and between 50-70 per cent of mental illness first shows up before age 18. Mental illness can affect how well a child does in school, in sports and other activities, the quality and sustainability of friendships, and positive connection between family members. This can in turn affect a child or youth’s sense of ability to develop into an independent adult with the capacity to function fully in life.
The more common mental health issues affecting young people are: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, attention and disruptive disorders, dependency/addictions, psychosis, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, suicide and suicidal thoughts. Suicide and ongoing thoughts of suicide may accompany mental illness. A recent B.C. survey found that approximately five per cent of youth had attempted suicide while 12 per cent seriously thought about it — and for those who are inclined to believe that talk of suicide in youth is just a call for attention, suicide remains the second leading cause of death among 15-24-year-olds in B.C.
Fortunately, through increased awareness of the issues, such as the contributing factors, and access to approaches to prevention and intervention, we can address the pain, and ease the distress of sufferers and their families.
Education and awareness are also about identifying and celebrating the ways in which children, youth, adults and seniors are maintaining, and can continue to maintain, positive mental and emotional wellbeing.
Many questions may come up, and often the focus is on whether or not one has a family member struggling and how to get help. Fortunately, there is quick access to a wide range of information on mental health matters via the Internet. The following sites are an excellent first stops for helpful information on mental health for children youth and families: the Canadian Mental Health Association of BC (www.cmha.bc.ca), BC Mental Health and Addictions (www.bcmhsus.ca) and Kelty Mental Health (keltymentalhealth.ca). Don’t forget the local library as a possible resource for information on mental health both online and in printed form.
For those who do not frequent the digital highway and want information about local and regional mental health services for children and youth, the local action team for the BC Child and Youth Mental Health and Substance Use Collaborative has developed a community resource guide that can be obtained by contacting Valley Community Services at 250-428-5547 or East Kootenay Addictions Services at 250-428-3036.
Jean Thomas-Mitton is a counsellor writing on behalf of the local B.C. Child and Youth Mental Health Substance Use Collaborative shared care initiative.
—BY JEAN THOMAS-MITTON