If you live in the St. John’s area, you’ve probably heard by now this heartbreaking news story in which well-known local actors Andy Jones and Mary-Lynn Bernard talk publicly about the mental illness and suicide that took the life of their son, Louis, at age 28. If you’re not familiar with the story, please click that link and read (or listen to the audio) what this courageous family has had to say about a loss that people all too often cover up with shame.
Parents who lose a young adult child to cancer or a car accident are devastated, but open about their grief. They talk about it; they mourn; sometimes they start foundations. Parents who lose a child to suicide all too often feel that it’s not acceptable for them to talk publicly about how their child died, and I applaud Andy and Mary-Lynn for talking so openly about something so painful.
I didn’t know Louis Bernard; I met him a couple of times several years ago and thought he seemed like a bright, charming young man. Our acquaintance was so brief I can hardly say I felt his loss, except in that it echoed for me with the too-many other losses I’ve seen families go through. There’s no “right” amount of funerals for teenagers and young adults you should have to attend, because the only acceptable amount would be none. But I’ve been to more than my fair share as a teacher, especially since I’ve started teaching the the Murphy Centre, where the population of young people I meet is a little more high-risk than the average high school population. There have been too many funerals, and too many of those have been for young people who took their own lives, often after a struggle with mental health that leaves their families looking, sounding, and no doubt feeling, like refugees from a war zone.
One of the powerful points Andy Jones makes in that interview is that relative to other fields of health care, mental-health care “is still back in the 17th century.” While that’s obvious hyperbole (in the 17th century mentally ill people were nearly always just locked up, while today only some mentally ill people are locked up) it pinpoints an important truth; we understand far less about the brain, what can go wrong with it, and how to treat it, than we do about other parts of the body. And there is still far more stigma associated with mental illness than with other kinds of illness.
Mental illness is poorly understood and poorly treated in general (though of course improvements in treatment are being made all the time). It’s particularly devastating in children and young people, I think, because the impact of mental illnesses on their developing brains is even less understood. Also, I think, because teenagers have a strong tendency to self-medicate with alcohol and illegal drugs, which complicates the mental health issues even further to the point where addiction-vs-mental-illness often becomes a real chicken-and-egg problem. Another thing to remember as you read or hear Louis Bernard’s story is that his is, in many ways, a best-case scenario, in that he obviously had parents who were aware of his issues, not in denial about the fact that their child was mentally ill, and were willing and able to advocate for him. Can you imagine what going through this hellish nightmare is like for a young person who doesn’t have family support?
I don’t know much about the medical or social-work aspects of how our society deals with mental illness, but one thing I do know is the school system, and I know that our school system has virtually nothing in place to deal with young people struggling with mental illness. Think about the supports we have in place for young people with learning disabilities. If your child is diagnosed with dyslexia, the public school system has a whole array of resources and accommodations that are supposed to be put in place to help him or her — extra time for writing tests, the ability to have tests read to you and answers scribed, access to audiobooks, support from a language specialist, etc. Now, I realize that young people who have learning disabilities (or their parents) will be quick to tell me that these supports are not always put in place as and when they should be, and school systems vary widely in how effectively they actually use these supports. I get that there’s a lot of room for improvement.
But what gets me frothing at the mouth is that in the case of learning differences, at least a structure exists, even if there’s room for improvement in how it’s applied. With mental-health issues, none of this exists. When your junior-high student is diagnosed with depression or severe anxiety, there is no “Pathway” to send them down within the school system. There’s no ready-made list of accommodations for the school administration to look at and say, “What resources can we call on to help this student?”
One of the big misconceptions I face about the place where I teach — which offers high school completion to young people who didn’t finish in the regular school system — is that all the students we deal with either have behavioral problems or severe learning problems. In fact, the majority of students I see every day have no behavioral issues and are very capable academically — some are even brilliant. There’s a complex tangle of reasons why students may not finish high school in a traditional setting but if I were asked to name the number-one issue I see most often it would be: mental health issues. Schools are so ill-equipped to deal with mentally ill young people that far too many of them end up dropping out. The fortunate ones find other ways to get an education. Some of them come to our program which, like everything, works for some people and not for others.
I was explaining this recently to a group of high school teachers in the traditional system who were talking to me with the usual assumption that everyone I deal with is a “hard case.” “Actually,” I said, “a lot of the students I work with have mental health issues, particularly the ones with anxiety issues so severe they simply can’t be in a regular classroom with 30 other students.”
“Oh, but those kids will never make it anyway,” one older teacher replied, so quickly my head spun a bit. “I’ve seen plenty of those — they try it in regular school, then they get moved to District School, then they try it at the Murphy Centre, but they’ll never get through high school.”
I was a little stunned, especially since I know many students who are living proof he’s wrong. I tried to put it in perspective and remember that this was one teacher, talking out of his own experience and probably a fair amount of frustration, but it was tempting to see his statement as emblematic of how the school system as a whole (though definitely not all individual teachers!) throws up its hands in despair when dealing with kids who have mental illness. They simply don’t know what to do. We simply don’t know what to do.
And I don’t have the answers, but I know it needs to get better. Several years ago our provincial government promised to build a in-patient treatment centre for youth with complex mental health issues (along with another for youth with addictions, an equally pressing and related problem). As you can see, this plan is still on the books, but it’s taking a very long time. The only time we’ve heard anything about it in the news for the past several years was when a group of neighbours in the area where the treatment centre was to be built protested that they didn’t want a bunch of mentally ill teenagers running around their perfect suburban neighbourhood (I’m paraphrasing here). Which brings us right back where we started: to shame, ignorance and stigma.
Shame, ignorance and stigma are the reasons that families often try to deny or hide mental illness, even (especially?) when it ends tragically in suicide. I am so impressed with Andy Jones and Mary-Lynn Bernard for speaking out about the terrible loss of their son. I only hope their courage and honesty shines a little bit of light in dark corners and helps us all realize that people with mental illness, and their loved ones, are fighting as hard as they can in a brutal battle. They can’t do it alone. Just like people battling any other kind of disability, they need all the rest of us — the doctors, the nurses, the social workers, the neighbours, the church members, the co-workers, and yes, the teachers — to step up and fight alongside them.