Galen EagleThe Peterborough Examiner
Date Published: Wednesday, April 25, 2012
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When Peterborough’s David Barkley began speaking to high school students 10 years ago about his experiences battling mental illness, he had a hard time filling the front row of a classroom.
“Students had this idea, maybe I’d be drooling out of the side of my mouth or I’d be unpredictable,” said the 31-year-old, who lives with schizophrenia. “They didn’t want to sit in the front row.”
In the last decade, Barkley said he has seen a massive change in youth regarding their understanding of mental illness.
Now when he steps into the classroom, students already know that one in four Canadians will experience mental illness in their lives. They already know some 3,600 Canadians commit suicide each year, he said.
But myths and stereotypes continue to breed in schools and it’s a major reason why many young people don’t get the help they need, he said.
“There is a lot of stigma around mental illness and unfortunately, it’s one of the number one things preventing people from getting help,” he said.
Barkley spoke candidly to Grade 7 students, parents and teachers Tuesday about the challenges he faces, but also about the obstacles he has overcome to lead a fruitful life.
“I wanted to show them that people with a mental illness can get back on track with their lives and get on with the things they have always wanted to do,” Barkley said.
His presentation was part of an inaugural youth summit on mental health at Fleming College that brought representatives together from 30 schools in both the public and Catholic school boards.
Two Grade 7 students, a teacher and a parent from each school were invited to participate in the all day summit, which included workshops and guest speakers.
The students will take what they have learned back to their perspective schools and become leaders in mental health dialogue, event organizer Nancy McCarthy explained.
“There is a really big need to improve levels of awareness and understanding of mental health in young people,” McCarthy said. “The biggest goal of the day is to try to break down the negative stigma about mental illness.”
Suicide remains the second leading cause of death amongst Canadians aged 15 to 34 and recent high-profile teen suicides in Ontario have underscored that alarming statistic.
That’s why organizers of Tuesday’s forum targeted Grade 7s, an age when mental health issues start to surface, said Deanna Swift, chief psychologist of the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board.
“This is when it starts to come, from intermediate age to high school, and we need to be really watching for those signs and symptoms,” she said. “We have to be letting the kids know that it is OK to talk about it.”
Bringing students, parents and teachers together is an important way to raise awareness about the symptoms of mental health, she added.
“It is imperative that we have this dialogue and we understand and recognize that young people suffer. We want to let them know that there are caring adults in their life that can help them,” she said.
David Hickey, a 12-year-old student at St. Joseph’s School in Douro, said he learned a lot about compassion Tuesday.
“I’ve learned that everyone with mental illness should be treated fairly just like everyone else,” Hickey said.
Teacher Jennifer Breckenridge from Havelock-Belmont Public School said the forum gave her and her students the information they needed to see past the stigma of mental illness at their school.
“It allows us to understand that stigma is there and understand our role in getting rid of it,” she said.
Barkley said the students’ questions and insight impressed him and he applauded the two boards for hosting the summit.
“It’s important to talk to them now because this is something they could be facing now or in the near future,” he said.
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