COVID-19 has significantly altered the daily lives of most Canadians and taught us the importance of taking care of one’s mental health.
According to the Survey on COVID-19 and Mental Health, developed by Statistics Canada in collaboration with the Public Health Agency of Canada, one in five Canadian adults aged 18 and older screened positive for at least one of three mental disorders assessed: major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When it comes to young adults aged 18 to 24, that figure was over three times higher, highlighting the need for mental health support for youth.
Fortunately, The Royal has been making a difference and providing health care to the community for more than 100 years. Since 2006, The Royal has been supporting those who are living with complex and persistent mental illness - connecting with approximately 62,000 clients and families yearly.
Whether you are affected by a mental health disorder personally or through a friend or family member, you are not alone. And often the first step to feeling better is getting help.
“Reach out to someone you trust - whether it is a family member, friend, coach, teacher or crisis line and have that initial conversation,” echoes Kayla Villalta, a former patient at The Royal and advocate for youth mental health. “Often the first step is the hardest, but there is always someone out there willing to listen. And there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
According to The Royal, more than half of adult depression manifests before the age of 14, and over 70% of adults with depression report having symptoms by the age of 18.
“Unfortunately, a number of major mental health disorders can begin in adolescence and young adulthood,” says Dr. Gail Beck, Clinical Director of the Youth Psychiatry Program at The Royal and Clinical Lead in implementing The Royal’s Youth Outpatient Program. “These young people are just establishing friendships and other important relationships. They are working through the emotions of growing up and face lots of transitions - entering high school, moving on to post-secondary studies, moving away from home for the first time. Couple that with a mental health diagnosis, and suddenly coping becomes more challenging.”
As was the case for Kayla, whose first feelings of depression started when she was around 12 although it would be another two years until she reached out for support. By the time she was 14, she was engaging in harmful behaviour.
In Canada, youth suicide rates are amongst the highest in the industrialized world, with suicide accounting for 24 per cent of all deaths among 15-24 year olds.
“Just like heart disease or cancer, depression is an illness. Mental illness is not just “in the mind”, and it’s not something that you can ‘power through’. The more we understand the biology of mental illness and suicide, the more it will help us de-stigmatize suicide, and encourage people to seek help,” says Dr Zachary Kaminsky, DIFD Mach-Gaensslen Chair in suicide prevention research at The Royal.
Luckily for Kayla, a friend noticed her actions and expressed concern for her safety. That was all it took for her to take the first step of talking to the friend and opening up to her family. Even though no one in her family felt depressed or anxious, and couldn’t relate to her experiences, they were extremely supportive. They took her to the family doctor, where she received a referral to The Royal and participated in both in-patient and out-patient programs over the course of her teenage years.
Now a graduate from Algonquin College’s Social Service program, Kayla is currently completing her BA in Indigenous social work at Laurentian University, all while working full-time with an agency that helps clients with special needs and continuing to advocate and fundraise for youth mental health support programs.
“The Royal changed my life completely,” exclaims Kayla. “I still struggle with mental health and was recently diagnosed with Bipolar disorder, which has been a big change. The difference now is that I am able to use the coping skills I learned at The Royal. Those life-changing skills continue to help me to this day.”
What stands out on her mental health journey was connecting with other youth at The Royal. Whether it was through group therapy, or through group outings and activities - the realization that there were other individuals out there with the same experiences, thoughts and feelings and could relate to her experiences had a profound impact. “It gave me hope and a true sense of connectedness,” remembers Kayla.
The other change she’s noticed is how the stigma around mental health is rapidly changing. “When I first sought help in high school more than 10 years ago I felt stigmatized. But in the last six years since graduating, I feel like there has been a complete 180 and people are more open, accepting and willing to talk about mental health,” shares Kayla.
Although stigma around mental illness and suicide continues to lessen - and more people are coming forward to seek help for depression and related conditions - many people do not respond adequately to current available treatments, which is why early prevention strategies are important priorities for The Royal.
“It is crucial for young people to have access to youth mental health programs catered to their needs,” Kayla insists. “The sooner they learn coping strategies, the better their overall situation will be. And they can take those skills with them all through life and apply them in any situation.”
According to Dr. Beck, the pandemic has certainly impacted various groups differently. For those who were experiencing mental health problems prior to the pandemic, pre-existing symptoms may have intensified during the pandemic. However, the pandemic has also caused a boom in the capacity for virtual appointments, and The Royal is in the midst of planning what percentage of appointments will be offered virtually moving forward to support as many people as possible.
The Royal’s dedication to taking mental health care out of the shadows is a shining example of what is possible when experts come together to address some of the biggest health issues and crises of our time. Our community is very fortunate to have this local and celebrated institution in our own backyard.
At Hydro Ottawa, we’re honoured to be able to raise funds and awareness around the challenges of living with a mental illness by supporting The Royal through the Inspiration Awards Gala and the Leaders for Mental Health Breakfast. To learn more about our support of The Royal, visit our Community Giving web page