You could say Aidan Scott's struggle with mental illness traces back to when he was eight years old. That's when the abuse started. Growing up in the Fraser Valley, the young boy kept silent about what was happening and how it affected him, but by the final year of high school, he was suffering from eating disorders, anxiety and depression.
"It came to a point in Grade 12, where I stopped really wanting to get involved in my sport. I remember separating from my friends and not being social anymore. I remember feelings of hopelessness and giving up, and the main part is they really escalated and they started to snowball off each other," he says.
To make matters worse, Scott's friends seemed unable to help or recognize signs that he was in trouble.
"At that point, there was no community, there was no one to talk to. I didn't know what was happening inside me," he says. "It was really hard for me to articulate what I was feeling. I couldn't really express it, and I didn't know what was normal and what was not normal."
There was always the Kids Help Phone, but it wasn't until Scott hit adulthood that he really started getting help from a system that seemed to be lacking in youth services.
Now, at 25 years old, Scott is using what he learned from his lived experience to help other youth through a new Fraser Health Authority program called Speak Up.
Speak Up pairs youth who have experienced mental illness with facilitators to talk with Grade 10 students in the Fraser Health region. The program focuses on raising awareness about mental illness and encouraging youth to share their stories and seek help. Speakers like Scott discuss their experiences and direct the audience to a related website called MindCheck.ca, where youth can learn more about eating disorders, depression, anxiety, stress, psychosis and substance abuse.
Thanks to a $432,000 grant from Coast Capital Savings, Fraser Health is bringing the program to high schools throughout the region, hoping to change the conversation on mental illness.
Speak Up started in September and already came to Burnaby's Byrne Creek Secondary in January and Burnaby North is next on the list for March.
According to Fraser Health, 20 per cent of Canadians will experience mental illness at some point in their lives, and roughly 67 per cent will not seek help because of public prejudice and lack of awareness.
Psychologist Karen Tee is Fraser Health's manager of mental health and substance abuse services for youth and a leading force in creating the Speak Up team.
As Tee explains, Speak Up's goal is to intervene when people are teens or young adults, when mental illnesses often take hold.
"Ages 12 to 26 is when mental health issues start," Tee says. "Anxiety actually starts in children, but also throughout the teenage and young adult years, and you get depression starting more so in the teenage years and psychosis in the later teen years."
Three-quarters of lifetime disorders start before the age of 24, she adds.
"The primary health problem for teens and young adults is mental health," she says. "It's not cancer or cardio vascular disease and stuff like that, it's actually mental health issues."
For Scott, Speak Up is also about changing the conversation and reducing fears that surround mental illness. Scott says there's a range of severity in mental illnesses, from mild to extreme, yet it's the extreme cases that are often portrayed in the media that generate fear and worry for youth who don't want the stigmatizing label of "mentally ill."
"If you remove the fears around mental health, you increase the conversation and the comfort," he says.
Scott's real turning point was speaking out about his mental illness and the abuse he suffered in his childhood.
"Speaking up is the best thing I ever did, when I finally broke the silence," he says.
Scott also guesses he would have been better off if there had been something similar to Speak Up when he was in high school.
"I don't think it's too much to say it would have changed everything, because I instinctively know the turning point for me was when I started to have a support network, I started to have a community around me that understood," he says. "And that's a base thing for kids these days. They are really seeking understanding."
For more information on Mind Check, mindcheck.ca.
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