Suicide was the third leading cause of children between the ages of 10 and 19 years in 2015, resulting in approximately 67,000 deaths. Let that sink in for a moment. 67,000 children globally in one year ended their own lives. How could that happen? Could they not get professional help? Were they afraid to ask for help? Did their parents know how they felt?
Firstly, let’s not get caught up in the blame game; instead let’s work to figure out a solution. We know that mental health issues such as depression – which often lead to suicide – are still very much taboo subjects that are not openly discussed. So let’s discuss them! We also know that depression is a treatable illness, though not getting the same access to healthcare as similarly debilitating physical illnesses. Why is that? Is it because a depressed child does not often exhibit physical injuries or symptoms? Most likely, yes, among other reasons. Mental illnesses continue to go ignored or denied as a valid health concern because it is a ‘silent illness’ and emotional resilience education is generally overlooked as part of the essential building blocks to their overall wellbeing and healthy development. So, let’s get them access to healthcare they can afford and let’s nurture their emotional resilience! The goal needs to be prioritizing early intervention and access to mental health resources, as well as the application of prevention measures throughout the lifespan, starting in utero.
When a child is given the environmental supports to a healthy mind and body and is also given the tools to learn and develop healthy emotional intelligence, they will have the protective factors necessary for positive emotional resilience to the adverse experiences of life. We may not be able to protect or prevent children from experiencing life’s hardships, but we can reinforce them with emotional regulation resources to manage unexpected hardships more successfully. Fear may exist surrounding the admission that a child’s mental health is suffering because parents don’t understand their role in the causes or effects involved. It is also common for parents to view the symptoms of mental distress as bad behaviour or to outright label them as simply a difficult child. All of these faulty beliefs together with others are creating barriers to treatment and prevention, despite the glaring statistics.
Large segments of society, at best, fail to recognise depression and other mental illnesses as “real” and, at worst, stigmatize mental illness by labelling a child as weak, bad, crazy or unworthy. Where is the empathy in these approaches? If it is discovered that a child has diabetes, asthma or another physical illness, families are provided ample access to treatment, education, and support services. So why should it be different for mental illness? Mental illness is not a choice. The paths for treatment of depression are varied and depend on the individual, but thankfully depression can be treated and managed without spiralling to suicide or other dire outcomes. It is unacceptable that youths are not speaking up about mental illness due to fear of judgment and rejection despite treatment being available, which has too often resulted in unnecessary death.
Society needs to accept that depression is real, it is not a choice, and it takes lives – every – single – day. Perhaps you have never suffered a mental illness, but the fact of the matter is you most certainly have experienced emotional distress. Emotional distress is the mild form of what can develop into mental illness. Luckily most people do not, but there are many protective factors that contribute to that. Mental illness is not just understood as a hereditary illness anymore, it is predominantly a preventative and treatable chronic experience of negative thinking, emotional dysregulation, and behavioural effects derivative from a cocktail of risk factors usually outside the control of the youth.
The next time you think someone could be in emotional distress to a degree that may be outside of your comfort zone, remember the worst thing you can do is nothing. Approach the person and remember you do not have to fix their problems, merely allow them to feel safe and heard in your presence, and then connect them with the necessary treatment resources. Let them talk to you about their struggles without feeling judged as weak, cursed, or unworthy of love or attention. This act on its own can save lives.
Marit Hudson, Youth Mental Health Advocate
Dr. Taylor Burrowes, Marriage & Family Therapist
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