Support helps ease stress felt by students
June 11, 2004
Andrea Gordon - TheStar.com

High schoolers feel pressure to excel in academics
It helps them to learn feelings are not uncommon


The 10 high school students pause for a second, considering the question just put to them. Then, in unison, they burst out laughing. Are they familiar with the symptoms of stress? "We're in Grade 12, aren't we?" guffaws Dianne Denton. "Who isn't stressed out?"

She and her classmates from North Toronto Collegiate are part of a generation bred on competition and high expectations. The pressure to excel academically is fierce. Coming just behind the double cohort, they still face a situation of too many university applicants for too few spaces. They need good marks and must be well-rounded by pursuing extra-curriculars and volunteer work. They hold down part-time jobs.

As Meghan O'Keefe puts it, "I am definitely a 17-year-old who's overextended."

With "stressed out" and "overextended" as much the lingo of today's youth as "blogging" and "dissing," mental health advocacy groups are starting to take their message of public awareness and prevention into the school system.

One of the first on the scene has been Youth Net, a national program that takes trained facilitators into classrooms to talk with high school students about mental health issues.

Stress is a big concern voiced by students, says Sadaf Bhatti, co-ordinator of the Youth Net program in Halton region, which has held sessions for more than 5,000 high school students in groups of 12 to 15 since starting up five years ago. Youth Net operates in other regions of the province but until recently, Halton was the only one running it in the GTA. Peel Region introduced a Youth Net program this spring.

Last year, the double cohort was cited by students as the main source of anxiety, says Bhatti. But parents are consistently named as a big source of stress for teens, along with the pressures around drugs and alcohol and concerns about eating disorders. It's not uncommon for kids worried about a friend to approach a facilitator afterwards, she says.

The program is the brainchild of an Ottawa psychiatrist who surveyed Canadian youth in the early 1990s and discovered that most would prefer to speak with peers when it comes to discussing their state of mind.

As a result, Youth Net sessions are held only with the counsellors — no teachers or other adults are present. "That changes the dynamics," says Katie Cino, Youth Net Halton co-ordinator.

The students fill out a survey at the start of each session. They are assured that everything remains confidential unless they disclose thoughts of harming themselves or someone else.

Key is the discovery that they are not alone in many of their stresses, because most kids tend to think they're the only ones feeling despair or loneliness. "It's helpful for students to hear that other students are having similar problems because I think it sort of normalizes things for them," Cino adds.

According to the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario, about 8 per cent of teens suffer from a mood disorder, and 15 per cent of those will attempt suicide. And while 80 to 90 per cent of the disorders can be successfully treated "they can't be treated unless you talk about it," says executive director Karen Liberman.

Raising awareness of problems and solutions is also the goal of the Mental Health and High Schools project under way by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), says Bonnie Pape, director of programs and research.

The project involves creating a Web site to provide information to students, parents and school staff about mental health problems and mental illnesses and how to help those facing them. The idea for the site, expected to be up and running for the next school year, "was based on what we were hearing about the mental health needs of young people," says Pape.

Serious mental illnesses tend to strike in late adolescence and early adulthood, which can lead to students dropping out because they can't cope. "We knew a lot of people, if they got the right kind of help and support, could go back and be successful," says Pape.

In its annual survey of youth in Ontario released earlier this month, the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health reported that one in 10 students reported experiencing three or more mental health issues. They included depression, anxiety, problem drinking, drug use or anti-social behaviours like theft or violence. About 11 per cent visited a mental health professional. One in eight reported serious thoughts of suicide in the past year.

Mental health awareness is being targeted to even younger age groups. CMHA is working with the Gail Appel Institute in Toronto to investigate how child care centres can promote mental health in children age 6 and younger. After interviewing 81 daycare centres, ideas will be put together in a booklet, covering everything from how to talk about feelings with young children to the impact of staff turnover. Through CMHA's Grey Bruce chapter, kids ages 4 to 11 are learning about bullying, self-esteem and attention deficit problems from child-sized puppets.

Today, the average onset of anxiety disorders is 12. Stress may trigger early onset of mental illnesses ranging from schizophrenia to depression in youth who have a genetic predisposition, says CMHA Ontario president Barbara Everett.

Suicide is also a big concern. And Youth Net deals with it upfront on the survey students fill out at the start. The last two questions ask whether students have had thoughts of killing themselves in last few months and whether they have ever tried.

On average, one or two will answer yes to those questions, says Bhatti. A crisis counsellor or mental health liaison nurse is on the premises or on call close at hand.

Last year, 1,400 students in 111 groups went through the Youth Net Halton program.

"The demand is rising. People are talking about it. People are excited about it," she says.

Some of the best mental health advocates can be other students. Helping others is what motivates Jonathan Singh, who has spoken out, including at a North Toronto assembly, to try and blast through the stigma that keeps people from asking for help.

"The more it's present and the more people realize it happens, the less awkward it becomes," says Singh, who struggled with depression for years before he tried to take his own life 18 months ago. He doesn't want people to go through what he did, "and if there's any way to prevent it, I will."

The message he wants to get out is: "Don't be afraid to talk about it. I can't stress that enough."