Dr. Muffy Greenaway: We need to make mental-health conversations part of daily school activity

The beginning of a new school year brings excitement and anticipation — the joy of spending more time with friends, seeing a favourite teacher, or sometimes just something to replace the boredom that comes with the end of summer.

For many students, however, the start of school fills them with dread and anxiety as school has been a place of discomfort and discontent, where anxiety surges, depression deepens and irritability is heightened.

They say misery loves company but this is not what I’ve seen or heard. When kids and teens are struggling with metal-health issues, the kids around them tend to distance themselves. They are left further disconnected when they most need their peers to lean in.

I have been working in the field of child and youth mental health for 15 years as a psychiatrist. I have sat with families in crisis during my days at B.C. Children’s Hospital, listening as the fear and heartbreak pours out of them because their child has mental-health issues that have brought them to the hospital. I have sat with hundreds of kids and teens in my practice at Three Story Clinic, listening to the quiet and desperate stories of youth struggling with anxiety, depression, addictions and social isolation.

I have worked with multiple youth-focused health authorities and agencies and have had many meaningful conversations with the principals, vice-principals and counsellors whose role in our children’s lives is to provide an education. Learning can’t happen when mental health is impaired; educators see this daily. We are all in agreement — the need is great and the resources are limited.

So, it was no surprise when I read the McCreary Centre Society 2018 B.C. Adolescent Health Survey. The results speak to what we all already know. Of 38,000 children and teens across 840 schools in 58 school districts who were polled, 15 per cent reported struggling with anxiety, depression, ADHD or post-traumatic stress disorder. That is 5,700 students struggling enough to miss school days, pull back from friends and drop all activities.

What caught me off guard was the discussion around “stress.” An experience that we can all relate too, stress makes us tense, edgy, fatigued and weary. As a daily occurrence, it erodes our relationships with ourselves, family, friends and jobs.

According to the report, most students reported feeling stressed and about half feel that they manage their stress poorly. These students are either already struggling with mental-health challenges or are at very high risk of developing them. These are the students that our education and health-care systems need to reach — before crisis or disaster.

The provincial government took an enormous step forward this spring with the creation of A Pathway to Hope, to provide services and accessibility for children, youth and young adults struggling with mental health and addiction under the direction of Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy.

There are many schools and school districts elevating mental-health awareness through activities and programming and we applaud those. Still, many teenagers are lost and alone, unable to reach out and connect to get the help they need. Connection is the cornerstone for developing resiliency — a key protective factor for youth struggling daily with mental-health issues. It is through connection that they can become aware of what they are experiencing, including how to name and manage it and receive help.

When Adam’s Apples Foundation asked me to join its board, I was hesitant. My work was taking a big toll on me. So much need with so few resources and trying to see more children and families was beyond what was healthy for me. So I took a deep breath, ready to say no, but not before listening to what they had to say.

Adam’s Apples had developed a mental-health education program for the children and teens that the health and education systems struggle to help, based purely on the concept of connection as a way to inform, educate and teach.

What began in 2016 with a single bowl of apples strategically placed within a school to offer a healthy snack, quickly evolved to become a key gathering place for students to connect, socialize and converse. As simple as it may seem, the impact of one apple leading to one connection can be the turning point for a youth who is struggling.

From this seed has grown comprehensive programming that holds the Apple Program at its core, while expanding to a mental-health literacy program, developed with the University of B.C., designed to help students gain mental-health knowledge and peer support competencies.

Adam’s Apples Foundation was created to honour the legacy of Adam Hryhorchuk, who passed away from an accidental drug overdose on Sept. 20, 2013, at age 22. Adam had a very special quality: he was genuinely interested in every person he met and he valued people for whom they were — a quality he exhibited throughout his school years. Adam gave a hand-up to kids who weren’t in sync with the crowd. He understood how isolation could impact his peers. He made a difference.

Sadly, while Adam gave so much, he did not take enough for himself. From this tragedy came a deep desire to connect with youth, because as Adam so clearly demonstrated, every person has a story that needs to be heard, even if only for a few minutes a day.

Adam’s mother, Darcy Hibberd, started the foundation to bring her son’s effusive personality and nurturing nature to adolescents in need of guidance and support. Today, with a passionate and respected team of educators, healthcare professionals and business leaders, Adam’s Apples operates in 27 schools and community centres in Burnaby, Delta, Richmond, Surrey and Vancouver, with demand to expand the program, all of which is provided free-of-charge.

The mission of the Foundation — Connecting Youth One Conversation at a Time — is a simple concept and one we need to emphasize in our schools, homes and communities.

There are mental health days and weeks, but this must be a year-round effort — a daily conversation.

I cannot think of a more important purpose than investing in the mental wellness of our next generation. I have sat with hundreds of families in my office but though the efforts of Adam’s Apples, I have indirectly reached thousands.

Dr. Muffy Greenaway is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Three Story Clinic, a clinical instructor at the University of B.C. and a board member of Adam’s Apples Foundation.

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