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COLUMN: Teen mental health is a bigger issue than we think

Speaking out about teen mental health helps break down stigma, writes Delview student Emma Way
( photo)

By Emma Way, special to the North Delta Reporter

It’s time to stop suppressing our youth’s emotions. Mental illnesses are too overlooked in teens; they are often perceived as “teen angst” which can be very harmful to a teen’s mindset.

Opening up about something so personal and getting it put aside as “typical” teen behaviour can start to make youth feel like they’re alone. It’s hard to open up when you feel like there’s no one to open up to. Youth sometimes turn to substances and violence as ways to cope, and so we need to check in on each other more to prevent struggling in silence.

Mental illnesses are more common than you might think. According to Youth Mental Health Canada, 1.2 million youth are affected by mental illness. Teen angst is a big part of growing up, however sometimes it can be seen as an excuse for underlying mental illness symptoms.

By definition, angst is a feeling of anxiety about your life or situation. Almost every teen experiences angst as they grow up and mature — it’s “a part of the process” — but we cannot blame underlying issues on it. There is no medical description of teen angst, but there are for sure ways of distinguishing it from mental illnesses, such as the length of time the behaviour persists and how intense these feelings are.

As well, mental illnesses are too often self-diagnosed, in some cases because people cannot afford to seek a proper diagnosis. (That is a privilege and part of a bigger issue.)

Struggling in silence is something that can ruin someone’s mental health as a whole and make them lose hope for getting help in the future. However, self-diagnosis is incredibly harmful as it feeds the stigma around mental illness by painting an image of fake or exaggerated symptoms passing as mental illnesses. Feeling sad is not the same as being depressed, mood swings are not bipolar disorder, shakiness is not anxiety, and so on.

People can only receive proper help when they have a proper diagnosis, and we as a society need to make getting a diagnosis and talking about mental health more accessible to the general public, and especially to teens.

“Mental illnesses and the medication you take for them have a stigma surrounding them and there’s no reason for it. Taking antidepressants for depression is similar to taking insulin for diabetes,” says Karen Shimonek a youth counsellor in B.C. “There is no way to entirely remove the stigma surrounding it, however our best option is to relate it to things we all experience daily.”

Shockingly, only one in five teens with a mental illness are diagnosed. This means that four out of five youth suffer in silence and are unable to receive help and manage their mental illness, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Because they can’t get the support they need, many teens turn to alcohol and drugs. “It’s like an escape from their reality,” Shimonek says. B.C. Others turn to violent acts directed at others — inflicting their pain and suffering on someone else — or harm themselves.

As a teenager myself, I have struggled with my mental health. I truly felt like there was no one to reach out to, until I told my mother. It was refreshing to express those feelings. I went to counsellors and discussed my personal issues, and now I no longer feel like I’m alone. I feel acknowledged and understand it’s not my fault I felt so negative towards myself.

Not everyone can have that same experience I had, but there are many ways to get support if you are struggling. There are numerous resources and people — both online and in person — who would be glad to talk and are trained to help you.

Speaking out about your experiences, your thoughts and feelings, is not being overly sensitive, or weak, or anything of the sort. On the contrary, speaking out is courageous and will ultimately break down the stigma surrounding mental health.

It’s okay to have a mental illness. It’s okay not be “okay.” You are not alone.

As Dr. Bonnie Henry says, we are all in this together.

Emma Way is a Grade 10 student at Delview Secondary in North Delta.

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