Have Your Say: What support would you offer a young person dealing with mental illness?


Craig and Marc Kielburger founded Free The Children, Me to We and We Day. Find out more at we.org. Their biweekly Brain Storm column taps experts and readers for solutions to social issues.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently came out with a bold recommendation: Primary care physicians must routinely screen patients aged 12 to 18 for depression.

We’re certain parents would be relieved if such a measure were introduced in Canada, where there’s a mental health crisis among young people, with family members on the front lines.

While society has made great strides in raising public awareness about mental-health issues, many parents still struggle with how to approach a young person they suspect is unwell, not knowing what words of comfort to offer.

Youth who are experiencing mental illnesses often don’t talk to the adults in their lives because they are “concerned that our reaction will make the problem worse for them,” says Dilys Haner, a senior manager of clinical research and development at Kids Help Phone and a graduate student in psychology at York University in Toronto. “They may feel they will be judged or their problems will not remain private.”

Haner adds that well-meaning statements such as “You have so much to live for” or “You need to focus on the positive” are often perceived as hurtful to a young person. “It can be easy for comments that sound neutral or even caring to us to sound very judgmental to someone dealing with mental-health challenges.”

Helping young people get the advice and treatment they need is a huge challenge. One in five young Canadians live with a mental illness – and only 20 per cent of those suffering receive professional help. Tragically, suicide remains the leading cause of death among our children and teens.

How would you support a young person in your life who you believe is struggling with mental illness?

Expert Comments:

Dr. Stan Kutcher, Sun Life Financial chair in adolescent mental health and professor in the department of psychiatry at Dalhousie University and IWK Health Centre in Halifax

“Listen and let them know you have heard them and that they are not alone – help is available and you will help them as much as possible. Suggest they get the help that they need and also involve a trusted adult – this could be a parent, a teacher, etc. If they are suicidal, go with them to a health clinic or hospital emergency room.”

Dilys Haner

“If you can react with empathy and non-judgment, you’ll help counter the stigma around mental illness that might be making it difficult for them to seek help. Empathy means you listen – really listen – and be in that moment with them. Be genuinely curious about what the situation is like for them rather than making assumptions. With empathy, you are more likely to work on what they would consider as potential next steps, rather than taking their control away and making it less likely that they will talk to you again in the future.”

Ann Douglas, Canadian parenting expert, mother of grown children with mental illnesses and author of Parenting Through the Storm(HarperCollins, 2015)

“I would tell that young person, ‘You can have a mental illness and a great life. You don’t have to choose one or the other.’ I would also add, ‘You don’t have to be afraid to get a diagnosis. A diagnosis doesn’t define you – it’s just a piece of information about you.’ ”

Dr. Eva Hahler, psychologist, the Centre for Mindfulness Studies, Toronto

“Studies find that youth benefit from learning mindfulness practices to decrease their symptoms of anxiety and depression and improve their socio-emotional skills and well-being. Consult your family doctor or school support staff for guidance in accessing resources such as mindfulness programs in your area.”



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