Teens teach Stop the Stigma of mental illness

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Wednesday May 18, 2011


May 18, 2011

Depression and social anxiety began stalking Asante Haughton at 14 when he moved with his single mother and older brothers to Regent Park.

His mother's war against several mental illnesses helped conspire to find the formerly sociable teen isolating himself in his bedroom playing video games like Off Road Fury and Super Mario World.

Haughton's isolation increased after two men from the suicide hotline knocked on his door. Paramedics rushed his mother to hospital. Prescribed antidepressants, and in and out of hospital, Haughton's mother maintained two jobs to support her family.

But her paranoia grew. So did the voices. Later, when his mother drank only tea, stopped eating and barely slept, her concerned sons called 911. At 5'10", her weight had plummeted to 85 pounds. Doctors told Haughton his mother would have died within a week without their intervention.

Doctors diagnosed her with depression with psychotic features, bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder.

Haughton described his mother's six-week hospitalization as the "lone bright time" then in his life. His mother was getting help. Now he could focus on his own issues.

"I was tired of being lonely, tired of feeling like a loser, tired of not wanting to get up in the morning. I was just tired of everything," the 25-year-old University of Toronto psychology grad told a captive audience of about 400 Grade 11 students Tuesday morning at Bishop Allen Academy Catholic Secondary School.

Bishop Allen hosted Haughton as its keynote speaker during a mental health awareness assembly, one of a number of Stop the Stigma Week events at the south-central Etobicoke school.

Stop the Stigma is a partnership between the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario and the Toronto Catholic District School Board that creates awareness of and provides early intervention for depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and psychosis among teenagers. Signs and symptoms of the mood disorders typically begin at age 14 or 15, the association reported.

"Ashamed" of his issues, Haughton forewent therapists. Instead, he watched TV's Dr. Phil.

Only later did he realize battling his issues on his own, without professional help or support, was the wrong choice.

"I didn't know much about depression and how to deal with it," he recalled. "I don't think I even realized I was depressed. I just thought I had low self-esteem. I might not have even gotten better. If I'd gotten help earlier, I might have saved myself years of feeling miserable. But it was the stigma that stopped me.

"I felt meeting my issues would make people not like me. I thought it would make me not like myself. The stigma made me feel ashamed and embarrassed and discriminated against and not as good as other people. Looking back, I wish I'd had something like Stop the Stigma Week at my school. Maybe then I would have felt more comfortable opening up about my issues and getting the help I needed sooner, instead of isolating and trying to do it all myself."

One in five young people is diagnosed with a mood disorder. Less than two-thirds of them seek help, Mood Disorder Association of Ontario reported. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15- to 24-year-olds, the association also reports.

In Grade 12, Haughton won Athlete of the Year. Still depressed, now also feeling social anxiety and fearful of crowds, Haughton wrote his first of three suicide letters. He didn't take his life, he said, because he couldn't afford a gun.

Studying psychology in university and making a friend saved him. He learned about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and applied it to himself, replacing his negative, self-critical, limiting thoughts with positive, self-affirming ones.

"I realized I wasn't abnormal. I wasn't messed up. I wasn't a loser or ugly or worthless. No. I had an illness. I was depressed. But it wasn't my fault. It could be fixed."

Haughton also learned to "neutralize" his depression through exercise, playing basketball, socializing, and constant monitoring of his self-talk to ensure it remained positive.

He started to see a counsellor. He has never taken antidepressants.

Today, he lives with his girlfriend on the 25th floor of a condo, has a job he loves, his mother completely recovered from her illnesses.

"Looking back, I feel like I've come a long way," Haughton told students. "I've beaten poverty and depression. My life is good. But I still have my suicide letters. They're a reminder of where I once was and where I don't ever want to be again. They're a warning of where I potentially could be if I slip up and stop putting in the work I need to keep myself healthy. Recovery is a lifelong process. But I'm glad to say - I'm happy."

Stop the Stigma Week aims to encourage Bishop Allen students to talk openly about mental health and to teach tolerance and intervention.

"Kids often say they don't want to talk (to me) because their friend will get mad," guidance counsellor Caroline Kassabian, co-lead on the project, said of students concerned about a friend's mental health. "I tell them, 'they may get mad. They'll get over it. You could save their life.' Once a person is talking about it and addressing the problem, they're grateful."

Signs of mood disorders in teens could include missing a lot of school, loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed, being apathetic about doing poorly in school, isolation and anger.

Parents also need to learn to take seriously signs of mood disorders in their children.â?¨"Sometimes, I'll tell a parent their son or daughter seems depressed. 'Don't worry. We'll take care of it,' they sometimes say. It's like any illness. Parents need to be open and know it's not their fault or their child's fault," Kassabian said.

Carina Kresic is one of 10 students, ages 15 to 18, on the school's Stop the Stigma Week organizing committee. It is the second year the school has hosted the week.

"We want to raise awareness about mental health so people don't feel stigmatized," said Kresic, 18. "If people understand what someone's going through, they can help them or help them get help."

Bishop Allen Academy joins Chaminade College School, a Catholic boys' secondary school in the Jane Street-Lawrence Avenue West area, as alumni schools championing the school board's Stop the Stigma Week. Those students trained peers at 10 other Catholic high schools across Toronto to host their own Stop the Stigma Week in the upcoming school year.

Mood Disorders Association of Ontario staff spoke with all the staff at Bishop Allen.

Sheila Gilkinson, Student Success lead teacher at the Catholic school board, said she would like to see the mental health awareness knowledge expand in to more schools.â?¨"It's an important piece for teachers to recognize the signs of mental health issues in students in their class," Gilkinson said. "For them to understand it's not a lack of trying sometimes. It's an absolute inability for the student to get there (academically).

"We want to put (mood disorders) on par with any other disease. We need to keep kids in the (school) system. Asante stayed in school. That's what kept him in life."