Megan was one of the 54 people nominated to become a national Face of Mental Illness as part of MIAW.
That’s right – I said it. Now deal with it.
People often ask why I have taken upon Aboriginal* youth suicide prevention as my passion in both my personal and professional life. Though there are many issues facing youth that I am sympathetic, passionate and informed about, I have dedicated myself to the issue of youth suicide prevention. This is not an easy issue to advocate for – it demands an honest, relentless and unforgiving approach, and there continues to be a limited amount of research, knowledge and dialogue surrounding the issue. Moreover, a conversation that is centered on these attributes has been difficult to ignite on a personal level, much less a national one.
As many friends, family members and colleagues know, mental illness and suicide has affected me on a very personal level. Aside from my own suicide attempts and self-harmful behaviours, I was recently diagnosed with Emotional Regulation Disorder (also known as Borderline Personality Disorder). This is marked by shifting emotions, maladaptive interpersonal relationships and a fear of abandonment (to name a few). While in my teenage years, I was diagnosed with depression and subsequently treated with anti-depressants. At my worst I was harming myself a few times a week and it would usually take the form of cutting or scratching. I made a half attempt to hide it, though I am not surprised that many noticed and didn’t say anything. Although I would self harm without the intent of suicide (similar to most who self-harm) the thought was never far from my mind.
Canadians know that suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 15 to 24. Even more concerning, it is the leading cause of death among First Nations and Inuit youth, with rates sitting between three and 11 times higher than the national average.
I consider myself lucky because I was able to get the help that I needed to move forward to live a happy and productive life and I am only 23 years of age. Unfortunately this isn’t the case for many of my First Nations, Inuit and Métis peers. Almost 80 per cent of people who attempt or complete suicide, suffer from a mental illness; but to date, there is very limited data on the number of First Nations, Inuit and Métis who suffer from mental illness. Additionally, the state of our current mental health care system, in which only 5 per cent of funding goes towards mental health research, combined with a lack of health care professionals working in Aboriginal communities means that many of these illnesses go undiagnosed.
Mental illness is linked to many of the problems that all youth deal with. This includes things like promiscuous sex (often resulting in unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted and blood-born infections), drug and alcohol addictions, homelessness, and suicide. Not surprisingly, these are the same problems that some First Nation, Inuit and Métis youth encounter on a day-to-day basis.
If we could recognize, diagnose and treat mental illness among youth, (especially First Nation youth where the aforementioned problems occur at higher rates than in non-Aboriginal youth) there is a strong possibility that these issues would be dealt with in a timely and appropriate manner. I realize that I just attempted to oversimplify a very, very complex problem and I am quite aware that the solutions require a multifaceted, holistic approach to solve them; however, I don’t believe that this idea is so far fetched that it is unattainable during my lifetime.
In January, 2009 I was selected to sit on a youth advisory group for the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), which is working towards a national strategy to reduce the stigma attached to mental illness. The MHCC is hopeful that it will bring mental illness, “Out of the shadows forever” as described by Commission Chair, Michael Kirby. I don’t advocate for this issue because I necessarily want to, but because I need to. Thankfully many people have been able to step out of this shadow – this darkness – in the hopes that it will inspire others to do the same. While it is still not easy for us to discuss mental illness and suicide under this blanket of fear, stigma and shame, we will end this silence and I move forward with a sense of empowerment that will only continue to grow.
*The term Aboriginal is used to encompass the First Nation, Inuit and Métis populations of Canada