During Mental Health Month, Our Kids Media is featuring a series of articles to raise awareness about depression, anxiety, suicide and other forms of mental illness — and how we can help save our children.
Grade 9. Singing in the choir at a school assembly. I had never felt uncomfortable performing but this time was different. I felt “normal” at the beginning, but partway through I kind of zoned out. I felt weird and really scared, the deep kind of fear that takes hold of your whole body right down to the pit of your stomach. Thankfully this only lasted a couple of seconds and soon the song was over. I didn’t really know what it was and I forgot about it. Little did I know I had experienced my first panic attack.
For the next couple of months I had a few more similar experiences but was still able to go about my life as I had before. Then I got an assignment for my Health class. Everyone was asked to do a presentation on a mental health topic. I remembered my teacher in Grade 7 talking about his personal experience with panic disorder and it reminded me of what I was experiencing, so I began researching the list of symptoms. The majority were frighteningly similar to what I had experienced. I thought, “Oh my god. I have this.” So I presented my topic to the class. I even ended the presentation by talking about what I had experienced and my suspicions about having panic disorder.
The next step was to start seeing a psychologist, and things did get better despite lots of bumps along the road. Before my Grade 12 year, I was barely able to leave the house for fear of having a panic attack, and was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to return to school. One thing that was really helped make it easier to go back to school was knowing there were teachers I could trust to be sensitive to what I was going through. They continued to treat me the same as everyone else after they knew my situation, and also understood that there may be times when I needed to do things differently than other students to manage my mental illness, such as leaving the classroom for a minute in order to calm down when having a panic attack and then returning to the classroom.
It is also important to for young people to feel like they have a place where they can openly discuss what they are feeling without being judged or ridiculed. The reason I felt I could share my experiences with my Professional Development and Relationships class was because my teacher had created a safe, non-judgmental and confidential environment. He did this by telling all of us at the beginning of the class that we would be discussing some topics that might make people uncomfortable but that we all had a right to be informed and what was said in the room stayed in it.
I‘m telling this story because I want others to learn from my experiences and to emphasize the importance of including mental health education in school curriculum. If my teacher didn’t have the extreme courage to share his own experiences I wouldn’t have had any idea about what was going on with me. As scary as it was, it would have been even more frightening if I hadn’t had some understanding of what was happening. I hope that by telling my story I can help someone out there understand what they’re going through and help those around them understand what they need to feel supported and manage their illness. If you have someone in your life dealing with mental illness and want to support them, the best thing you can do is talk to them open and honestly without judgment so they can tell you what they need.
[Emily Atkinson holds a degree from St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, and hopes to go back to school to become a mental health specialist. She is currently working at a child care centre in Halifax, and is an active member of the Youth Advisory Council for the Sun Life Financial Chair in Adolescent Mental Health. The Chair works directly with youth to provide easy-to-understand materials about mental health and the brain. The materials are offered free to parents, families, physicians and anyone who wants them. Visit teenmentalhealth.org for more information.]