A groundswell of action to combat teen suicide started with the death of Daron Richardson in 2010 and continues to gain momentum. Young people are now speaking more openly about depression than ever before — and trying to access mental health services. As health-care professionals struggle to cope with demand, an army of well-intentioned people is trying to figure out how to survive the tsunami of need
BY MOIRA FARR
Hannah Brunsdon has a bow in her hair. A happily stylish black bow with white polka dots. She is a petite girl, 16 going on 17, a student at Canterbury High School, about to address a crowd of hundreds of citizens who have gathered on a frigid February night in the auditorium of Ben Franklin Place to champion a noble idea: making Ottawa a “suicide safer” place for young people.
It isn’t Hannah’s first speaking engagement and won’t be her last. The girl has blown the lid off the once taboo subject since her own battle with mental illness began back when she was 15. Obsessive thoughts that once involved harmless things like a big crush on Damien McGinty (Ireland’s answer to Justin Bieber) shifted and she became depressed, leading her to write and produce a dark play in which a girl confronts the negative voices in her head and ends up literally dancing with death.
For Hannah’s mother, Kathy, the themes of the play were a red flag. Then the outgoing daughter with stellar grades began having unexplainable aches and pains. She wanted to sleep all the time. She had so little energy and felt such panic about her schoolwork that she was excused from writing her exams that semester.
Hannah’s road to recovery hasn’t been easy, but she reached out for help and eventually got it: therapy, medication, the warm embrace of family and friends, and a growing community network of people insisting on more public conversation about mental illness and better services to deal with it. Depression, Hannah knows, may strike her again. But now she has tools to recognize the warning signs and no intention of suffering in silence or going down the loneliest road of all, to suicide.
Tonight Hannah will speak alongside three other youth advocates: Emily Beaudoin (16), representing Youth Net, an initiative of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), and Peter Gindl and Myron Khatheer (both 21), of the downtown youth-engagement centre of the Youth Services Bureau (YSB). They’re all here to tell adults what they think and what they want: more than anything, a hand in designing and delivering services, a seat at any decision-making table. When it’s Hannah’s turn, she is composed and clear of voice. “When I went looking for help, it seemed like there were a million services, and it was confusing to figure out which to choose.” Nods and yeses from the audience. “You have to take care of us the moment depression starts,” she asserts to more empathetic mmms and applause.
Hannah and her fellow speakers, whether they know it or not, are bringing to life an impressive, even momentous, event in the city’s history. Tonight’s gathering is sponsored by the Ottawa Suicide Prevention Coalition and smoothly moderated for broadcast by CFRA’s Steve Madeley. Mayor Jim Watson is here and so are the city’s deputy chief of police, chief paramedic, and chief officer of public health. Bell Canada is here, too, launching its Canada-wide “Let’s Talk” campaign — attendees are encouraged to visit tables in the lobby to pick up a pocket-sized pamphlet the corporation has sponsored: “Know What to Do: Preventing Youth Suicide,” with information about signs to watch for in a young person’s behaviour and contact numbers for local crisis lines. There are many other materials, from many other organizations, to take home in brown paper shopping bags. And people do fill up their bags. People like Meggin Leigh Roberts, 20, a student in the Professional Writing Program at Algonquin College (full disclosure; I’m one of her former, very proud instructors) who recently wrote her first feature article on the subject of the depression that engulfed her two years ago and how she got help and gained the confidence to turn everything around. Her powerfully candid article was published in the Vankleek Hill newspaper The Review, where she arranged a seven-week field placement for herself.
And people like Janet Osborne, a delicate-featured woman in her 40s with a spritz of pink over the bangs of her silver-blond hair, still searching for answers, solace, something, anything to hold onto, almost a year to the day since her son, 18-year-old James, committed suicide. James was an athlete and a keen co-op student at Rogers Cable, where he worked the camera at local sports events. His co-workers were devastated by his death. The station will now sponsor a scholarship for a broadcast student in James’s name. For his mother, it’s a comforting and much appreciated gesture. “I can’t say enough about Gavin Lumsden [supervising mobile producer at Rogers TV]. He has been amazing,” she says. But it doesn’t bring back her son or help her answer the question that will haunt her forever: why? So she comes to events like this, searching and hoping that her story and James’s can help others.
The evening’s lengthy speakers’ list includes a who’s who of local politicians and community-health advocates: Alex Munter, president and CEO of CHEO, speaks of the “raw emotional intensity” that surrounds the issue; MPPs Yasir Naqvi (Liberal) and Lisa MacLeod (PC) put aside political differences and stand at the podium together to speak on the ultimate non-partisan issue of keeping young people alive; Joanne Lowe, executive director of the YSB; Dr. Ian Manion, executive director of the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health; Cherry Murray and Michael Hone, directors of Crossroads Children’s Centre, providing mental health services for kids up to the age of 12; and Dr. Raj Bhatla, psychiatrist-in-chief at The Royal Ottawa Health Care Group.
Hone, a 21-year veteran social worker, smiles when asked later in an interview if, even five years ago, he could have imagined a gathering of this heft around the issue of youth suicide ever happening. “Absolutely not.”
It is municipal councillor Allan Hubley, with a rose in the lapel of his black suit, standing beside his wife, Wendy, who addresses the monumental pain of who is not here tonight: his own son, Jamie, who took his life, at the age of 15, in October 2011. Also not here tonight, though they send best wishes to everyone, are Luke and Stephanie Richardson, another high-profile family in the region who lost their 14-year-old daughter, Daron, to suicide in November of 2010 and very soon afterwards launched the Do It For Daron (D.I.F.D.) campaign to raise awareness and spark conversation among young people, teachers, and parents about youth mental health. The Richardsons have bravely spoken out, have raised more than a million dollars toward educational programs at The Royal and local high schools, and recently helped launch the ambitious Power to the Purple (Daron’s favourite colour), a movement of young people spreading the word about the need to speak openly about mental illness.
So many,working so hard to change attitudes and prevent tragedies like the Richardsons’ and the Hubleys’. People like phys-ed and health teacher Patricia Keeble, of Bell High School in the city’s west end. “When you’re dealing with young people, your antenna always has to be up,” she says, as we walk to her office through corridors buzzing with Friday-afternoon teen energy and the roar and thump of a volleyball tournament in progress in the gymnasium. She makes a clicking sound as she flicks two fingers up, like antennae. A huge button pinned to her pink T-shirt reads, You’ve Got This! Stamp Out Stigma! It’s the creation of students, who now study mental health as part of their curriculum, starting in Grade 11 (and one day, Keeble expects, Grade 9). After 25 years of teaching, she’s a savvy reader of kids. But she reaches for a tissue and speaks haltingly when the conversation turns to the death of Daron Richardson, who played on a hockey team Keeble helped with and who was a friend of her niece’s. “This is still hard for me. The Richardsons are great people. Daron was a great kid. We just didn’t see that coming.” It’s what hurts Keeble the most — the not seeing it coming — and why she and others at her school kicked into high gear after that tragedy. She shows me a picture of seven smiling women, a whole health team who worked with guidance counsellors and peer mentors to help kids speak openly about any problems they might be having. “That was us in December, about a month after Daron died. We had so many kids coming in to talk, we were exhausted. We still see a lot of kids, and that’s a good thing. I think society used to tell people who were depressed, you know, suck it up, buttercup. We don’t do that anymore.”
The groundswell of action that started back then continues to gain momentum, and no one at this February gathering has forgotten what’s at the heart of it.
“Today would have been Daron’s sweet 16,” Allan Hubley says in a wavering voice, explaining the Richardsons’ absence. “So they couldn’t …” A stunned murmur pulses through the room, the audience’s way of finishing that sentence.
All of the night’s speakers are in a good position to know that the city — not unlike others in the province, the country, the world — has a serious problem to solve: an ever-increasing demand for mental health services for young people. Two weeks after this event, I will interview Dr. Hazen Gandy, psychiatrist and division chief of hospital-based care for children and adolescents at CHEO. I will wait in the reception area of the mental health wing there, staring at many posters: kidsmentalhealth.ca, the Parents’ Lifeline of Eastern Ontario, Crossroads Walk-in Clinic, YOO Magazine, Make the Connection — the Rainbow Connection. I will hear people singing “Happy Birthday” to someone in a room down the hall, and it will clutch at my heart, because you have to figure it’s hard work having a happy birthday in the psychiatric ward of a children’s hospital. When I finally sit with the thoughtful and gracious Dr. Gandy in his office, this is what he will tell me: “The demand for services has been increasing incrementally over the last five years, perhaps seven to 12 percent a year. But in the fall of 2010, we saw a sentinel shift over a period of two months, with something like a 40 percent increase. We thought it would be a wave, but it turns out it’s a tsunami. And it hasn’t stopped.”
February was Mental Health Awareness Month, and dozens of events like the one at Ben Franklin took place, sponsored by an army of well-intentioned people trying to figure out how to survive the tsunami.
The furrow in the brow of Karen Tataryn, regional director of Specialized Psychiatric Mental Health Services for Children and Youth at CHEO and The Royal, deepens as she contemplates the gap between services needed and the resources to provide them — all those parents, all those troubled kids, reaching out for help and being told they’ll have to wait weeks or, more likely, months to get appointments, assessments, steered in a direction that might lead to some relief. “I know that for some families with a child struggling at home, being told they’ll wait three to five months for a consultation or referral feels like a lifetime. Eight to 10 months feels like no service at all.” With a waiting list of close to 1,200 in November of 2011, clinicians and crisis-intervention workers worked flat out over Christmas to see as many people as they could. By early February, the waiting list was down to 775.
Everyone in the field notes the recent spike in demand for youth mental health services: at the YSB, crisis calls are up 25 percent; demand for their mobile crisis-intervention teams has risen by 34 percent. The Crossroads Children’s Centre has also reported an increase of 25 percent in the number of families it sees in a year. At The Royal, similar figures, similarly lengthening waiting lists. “We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” says Dr. Gandy — shifting already limited resources for the moderately ill to address those in need of more urgent, specialized care.
What does all that translate into for families looking for help? The Brunsdons got Hannah’s diagnosis of depression the week after Daron Richardson’s death. Kathy’s heart sank when the woman on the phone at CHEO told her the wait for a psychiatric consultation would be nine months. Hannah was terrified. “I thought, what if that [suicide] happens to me? What if I can’t stop it from happening?” She stayed in bed and nursed crippling stomach aches. The woman on the phone told Kathy not to leave her daughter alone, so she followed Hannah to the bathroom, sneaked onto her Facebook page, and read her emails. “I hated that,” she says now. The woman did hear Kathy’s distress, though, and told her she would call back within the week. “I remember sitting by the phone, literally not leaving the house for that week.” When the call came, it was with the hopeful news that because Hannah would soon turn 16, she could be bumped to The Royal, where the waiting list was just five months. Desperate for help now, Hannah’s parents networked through family, friends, and colleagues and finally found a pediatrician who would see their daughter.
“I remember it was the last day of school,” says Hannah. “And I thought, oh good, now I’m going to be fixed by Christmas.’ ” Of course, it would take a lot longer than a few days to “fix” Hannah, but by the end of January, the doctor had confirmed her mood and anxiety disorder, put her on effective medication, and started her in therapy. In May, she would finally receive further treatment at The Royal. “As a parent, you’ve got to listen to your child, be persistent with the professionals. Be your child’s advocate.”
If there’s a way to see what’s going on in a positive light, it’s this: public efforts to reduce the stigma of admitting that one suffers from a mental illness are working. And now that people have been told they should, and must, get help, it’s a matter of making sure help is there when they seek it. Everyone working in the field agrees that stigma reduction is working. They also point to increased media coverage of mental illness in the wake of such tragic deaths as Richardson’s and Hubley’s as a key factor in the growing demand for services. And they agree that larger social issues are making coping more complex than ever for young people. Dr. Gandy speaks of the tendency of social media to foster “the illusion of community,” of kids addicted to games, hunkered down in basements, whose only “friends” are people they interact with online; of kids who can’t escape bullying even in their own bedrooms, where they can read and send text messages all night long. “I believe the level of stress and distress is higher than it was for our generation,” he says.
The long-standing, chronic underfunding of youth mental health services is well documented. Finally, the province seems prepared to address the issue. The first three years of its 10-year plan to improve the mental health of Ontario citizens are being devoted to investing in access to child and youth services. Locally, that translates into money for new and expanded services, such as YSB walk-in clinics two days a week, more mobile crisis-intervention teams, and better coordination and communication between existing services, even the development of “system navigators” to help parents wend their way through an often complicated thicket of services to find the most suitable ones for their kids. “We’ve never had enough youth and child psychiatrists, we don’t have enough now, and we probably won’t ever have enough,” says Dr. Gandy. And though he points out that not everyone needs to see a psychiatrist, other services do need to be in place. For instance, Youth Net, based at CHEO, offers a wide range of group activities and one-on-one counselling for young people. The youth-engagement bureau is also there to help youth cope and get involved in community life. Hannah loves it. “There need to be dozens more Youth Nets,” she says.
Now, it’s hard to imagine the effervescent presence that is Hannah not being able to get out of bed. She’s passionate about helping other young people make it through dark times like those she experienced; she even has a business card: Hannah Brunsdon, Teen Mental Health Activist and Speaker. She wants balance in her life and has given up Facebook, a decision she made after finding harsh comments about her written by people from her former high school. She organized a mental health group at Canterbury in December of last year and was astonished when “60 kids and five teachers jammed into that room” for the first meeting, humbled when a girl approached her weeks later and said: “Hannah, I want to thank you. If you hadn’t spoken out, I wouldn’t be here.” In June 2011, she staged her play for a capacity crowd at Cube art gallery, raising $1,400 — half went to the D.I.F.D. campaign, half to Youth Net. She has sent city officials her proposal for a youth mental health conference and was profiled by CBC’s The National in a feature documentary about youth mental illness. She won her school’s Humanitarian Award in the fall of 2011 and glowed at The Royal gala (in March 2011), where she was presented with an Inspiration Award. “This is my calling,” she said after the ceremony. She wants to study neuroscience at Carleton University or psychology at the University of Ottawa. She was considering an offer that came in after the CBC documentary aired, from the vice-chancellor of the University of New Brunswick, which offered her a spot in the university’s bachelor of arts in leadership program. But she’s not ready to leave home — the anxiety is too much.
Not bad for a girl who wrote about dancing with death just two years ago. The morning after the gala, I meet with Hannah and Kathy for lunch. Today Hannah’s hair accessory of choice is a barrette sporting three creamy silk rosettes. She’s bubbling with excitement about seeing the musical Rent at the National Arts Centre that night and interrupts her musings on mental health to comment swooningly on the restaurant’s background music (“Taylor Swift! She’s sooooo good! Oh, Adele — I love her!”)
But she’s serious, too — dead serious — about educating others. It made her mad when a motivational speaker at her school made disparaging remarks about people who take antidepressants, and she stood up and said so. It hurt her when Jamie Hubley took his life, after allegedly brutal anti-gay bullying at A.Y. Jackson High School. “I feel like it’s a war, and soldiers are falling. I’m working so hard. I don’t want to lose people!” (Peter Gindl, who also sat on the panel that February night, was horribly affected by Jamie’s death too — “I cried for two days,” he says; part of the work he does with the Youth Services Bureau’s Rainbow Youth Advisory support group is going to high schools and spreading the word about tolerance and acceptance. They never made it to Jamie’s school. He wonders if he, or anyone, might have been able to make a difference somehow.)
Another girl comes to my mind as I listen and contemplate Hannah’s story and that of so many other young people. Like Hannah, she experienced crippling anxiety and black moods in her early teens, couldn’t figure out why she so often found herself crying, alone, curled up on the floor. This was the 1970s, and the family doctor, told of her headaches at school, her low moods and crying jags, patted her hand and said that everyone experiences stress, you just had to deal with it. Suck it up, buttercup. So she sucked it up, went to university, got an English degree and then one in journalism, successfully launched her writing career. Only there was that intermittent private darkness, and for about a year, when she was 24, it got darker and stayed around longer than ever before. It broke up a relationship, sent her to therapy, seemed to pass (no drugs for the moderately depressed in those days, and because she never told anyone that sometimes the feelings veered toward ending her life, no one, including her, thought it was really all that bad). Not surprising, maybe, that she ended up, post-divorce, back in love with someone who had some of the same issues with depression. Someone who would, tragically, end his own life at the age of 34.
That last event happened 18 years ago. Of course, the girl and the woman was, and is, me. I wrote a book about surviving the suicide in my life; all these years later, writing this story has had its loud echoes and hard moments. I wouldn’t mention it except for that slogan that keeps bannering through my head: what, after all, I ask Andrée Steel, the dynamo president and CEO of The Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health, is the “it” in doing it for Daron? “The ‘it’ is speaking openly about mental health so that people know, if they’re suffering, they’re not alone. For teens, it’s reaching out to a friend and it’s that friend knowing what to do with the information. It’s not keeping secrets. D.I.F.D. has really moved the yardstick for young people in talking about this.”
It helps immeasurably to know you are not the only one. It’s why the affable, accomplished Dr. Ian Manion, head of the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health and one of the foremost authorities on the subject, will often end speeches with the revelation that he has had his own battles to fight. “Depression — my family’s loaded with it, and I’ve had it myself. I ask people in these gatherings, do I look like a sick person? No. We have to tell stories of coping and resilience. Your life is not over if you get diagnosed with a mental illness. We can’t cocoon our children. We need to teach them and show them that adversity can be overcome.”
The good news is, as the famous anti-bullying campaign slogan goes, it gets better — and even if it occasionally gets worse, you become, as Dr. Manion points out, more resilient. Like so many others, I’ve managed to find effective therapy, medication, and coping strategies that work for me, and after so many years living with the dark thing that descends from time to time, I know how to tell it to get the hell away from me and to move on with my life, not death.
Uncomfortable though it feels to reveal such private things, I guess I just did that for Daron, and also for Hannah, who shouldn’t ever feel she’s the only one.
The day after our interview, Hannah tells me in an email: “Rent was amazing! I cried like a baby! It was so good and so well done!” Even electronically, Hannah manages to radiate happy teen-girl energy. I look at her business card, with its happy drawing of a bumblebee beside her title and contact information. She gave me the card when I told her of a friend’s daughter who, at 14, is struggling the way she did. “Please tell her she can call me,” she says.
Hannah is fighting a war, after all, and she doesn’t want to lose anyone.
Who, in this community, does?
Visit www.ottawamagazine.com/magazine for a link to a comprehensive list of teen mental health resources in the region.
This article appeared in the May 2012 edition of Ottawa Magazine.