Kendra Fisher Photo by Evan Boudreau

Symposium tackles student mental health

  • December 6, 2013

TORONTO - Victoria Doucet took part in the Toronto Catholic District School Board’s 2013 Mental Health Symposium because she, like more than 10 per cent of the population 15 or older, suffers from a mental health disorder.

According to Statistics Canada, last year roughly 2.8 million Canadians aged 15 and older were suffering from one or more mental health disorders.

“I’m really into the mental health thing especially since I have experience with it,” said the Grade 12 student from Monsignor Fraser College. “I have depression and anxiety so I went to all the depression and anxiety parts. Just seeing that the people made it through, that sort of motivates me to get through what I am going through now.”

Held on Nov. 28 at the Old Mill Event Venue, the symposium began with a general lecture by Dr. Greg Wells then broke into smaller seminars which focused on specific ailments such as depression, anxiety and borderline personality disorder.

Wells stressed the importance of finding positive coping mechanics used by the Olympians he’s worked with for the past 16 years.

“The cool thing that I’ve seen at the Olympics is that world-class athletes ... do very simple things to perform under pressure. They are able to handle themselves in extreme circumstances.”

Things such as stretching for 20 seconds every 20 minutes, focusing on your breathing and stepping away from it all by taking a walk are techniques Wells has seen work both for athletes and those suffering mental health disorders.

The disheartening part for Wells is that many young people, like Doucet who’s turned to self- harming in the past, frequently turn to negative coping mechanics. Wells said that is “terrifying” when considering current mental health statistics surrounding adolescents. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada one in five Canadian adolescents struggle with a mental health disorder with only about one-third of them receiving professional help. And those figures are rising, said Wells.

“We are seeing skyrocketing rates of depression, anxiety and stress-related illnesses,” he said. “We need to address these issues.”

Wells said it is important for students to recognize there is help available. Wells suggests talking to a doctor, counsellor or even a trusted teacher.

Doucet, who said she will try to employ some of the techniques Wells mentioned the next time she has a flare up, has seen the benefits.

“Even somebody telling you that it is OK, I am always here for you, that helps,” she said. “And even though you don’t want the attention it is still good to have that.”

Later in the day Doucet sat in on Kendra Fisher’s lecture where this idea was r eaffirmed. As the goalie for Canada’s In-Line Women’s hockey team and former member of the Team Canada women’s hockey program, Fisher said that even the high-performance athletes Wells works with are not immune to mental health problems.

Following high school Fisher struggled with undiagnosed mental health illnesses but, in the hopes of attaining her dream of playing in the Olympics, tried to hide them under her goalie gear. But when that dream was within reach in 1999, Fisher’s mental health forced her to leave the ice hockey selection camp.

“The coaches asked me a question, they said would it help if I were to know that I made the team,” said Fisher. “It didn’t matter at all that I had made the team, that didn’t make it go away.”

Giving up on her dream only pushed Fisher further into suffering until her mother eventually intervened, dragging her reluctant daughter to a variety of doctors. Fisher would finally be diagnosed with general anxiety disorder with severe panic attacks, clinical depression, agoraphobia and obsessive compulsive disorder. For the next five years she struggled with her ailments and the side effects of her medication until attending a yoga class which taught her to use a technique she’d known how to do her entire life — breathing.

Simply by focusing on the most basic act of human survival, Fisher learned to defeat what had stripped her dream away in Calgary and has made her a message of hope for youth such as Doucet.

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