Saturday, November 14, 2009

You mean.. we're going to talk about suicide? In the classroom?

I've always thought that our mental health system has been a little bit screwed up. Aside from the great conversations I've had with people about the language that we use within it and to describe it, I've always thought it to be so screwed up that it is one of the few sectors in the world where the people we are trying to serve within it have virtually no voice to express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the services and care that they receive. I stayed in the hospital overnight this past summer for surgery and was given extensive opportunities to provide the hospital with feedback on my care, including naming nurses or staff who had performed well during my stay, but in the years that I've interacted with the mental health system I've never once been given the opportunity to provide them with any feedback on the work that they do.

I've always had a lot to say about mental health issues, they've impacted my life in quite a tremendous way, but as I've said before I've never found a forum that was willing to hear what I had to share. That is what made what happened this week so special and interesting for me. CAMH sponsors a film festival here called Rendezvous with Madness. They show films related to mental health issues and run panels to discuss various themes from the films, often involving mental health professionals, filmmakers and those with lived experiences of whatever is being presented on the screen. The really cool thing that they do that they've been doing for the past few years now is running a program where they curate a series of short films, and present them to high school students, in order to start dialogue about mental health issues within the school. For those panels they were looking for youth panelists with lived experience of mental health issues. It just so happened that I heard that they were looking, and jumped at the chance to be involved.

First of all, I have to say that I am very impressed with the work that they are trying to do. Just the fact that they were willing to bring issues of anxiety, psychosis and suicide to the table to dialogue about is incredible. If you look under the school program section of their website you can see the descriptions of the films that they were presenting. These were not light topics. I am impressed that they were thrilled to have a young person with lived experience of the mental health system on their panel. This speaks heavily to wanting to actually use a youth engagement model. This is good news for people like me who are trying to have those opportunities to speak to what they know.

The first day was amazing. The kids were fully there and engaged and they had lots of amazing questions. As I was talking to them it reminded me of some of the crazy things that were going on around me before I got help. Remembering things how long friends tried to convince me to talk to someone for before I actually listened to them, and the things that I did to avoid people knowing just how bad things really were. It was such a blast from my past. It was good though, it let me see that I had a sense of perspective about all of it now that at 15 and 16 I just didn't have. Then the world was scary, but now I can see a lot more clearly exactly what it was that was going on. My one regret from the first day was that we didn't have time to answer all of the questions that the youth had, and the youth didn't feel like they could come up to the panel afterward to ask their questions.

The second day was a bit more challenging. The audience was a lot younger. Grade 7 and 8 students as opposed to grade 11. We had less time, and opted to cut out two of the movies. For the grade 7 students we actually showed them the video that dealt with suicide, and there was a large backlash from the school from that decision. If you read the description, then like me you are probably cringing at the idea of making a pro-con list about committing suicide, thinking that it is far too tacky, and if someone is thinking about committing suicide then the bad to them likely does outweigh the good. I do have to say though that if you can get past the initial cringe-factor the movie actually does a really good job at proving his point. That sometimes the bad things do outnumber the good things, but that things have different weights too, and that no matter how bad things are, there are always things to hold onto. That suicide is a permanent solution to problems that can usually be fixed, or endured until they are gone. I was really impressed with the kids during the panel because they asked really intelligent questions and asked about suicide, if the boy in the movie was mentally ill because he had been thinking about suicide. One of the answers that was given though I really objected to, I don't believe that everyone who commits suicide is automatically mentally ill. I think there are a lot of reasons, and it is way too complicated to paint everyone with the same brush. Some people could have a diagnosable illness sure, but many others wouldn't necessarily. It isn't that simple. But I digress. The school requested that we not play the suicide video for the grade 8's and with reluctance the group agreed. I think that this was quite irresponsible of the school to be honest. The point of the festival was to invite dialogue, and when suicide is such a problem, it is the 3rd highest rate of mortality among teenagers, it seems quite irresponsible to shut any kind of dialogue on it down. I know that for myself the societal silence on suicide makes trying to deal with it or talk about it even harder. Especially when the idea that the silence perpetuates is that this never happens, or that merely talking about it is enough to get you hospitalized. It is enough to make anyone terrified to reach out for help when they need it.

I personally think that programs like this one should make their way into all high schools. I know that mental health education in high schools tends to focus on softer topics and doesn't often hit onto the very real experiences of youth. I like using the films as a way to start dialogue and sharing stories because it gives the group a common ground to start from. It gives them a chance to see what it can look like at the extremes, and then gives them a chance to look critically at the relationships and stigmas that it sees portrayed. I wish that there had been something like this when I was in school, where there was someone telling me that it was okay to get help. I just wish that it was longer than one week a year. Both for my own activism and sense that for the first time I had the opportunity to talk about what I went through, and for the sake of those who I had the chance to touch. Had I seen it then I would have been terrified that people crawled into my head and pulled out the ghosts that were hiding there, but I would have wanted to talk about it, and maybe then I could have found a way.

I'd be really interested in knowing what the conversations and feedback from the kids was like after they left. The more we talk about these things the less scary they are. That's what I believe anyway.

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