Stella’s daughter Emma suffers with mental illness. Even before her parents went through a painful separation and what Stella refers to as a “high-conflict divorce,” Emma had begun withdrawing from life and her family.
The crisis reached a peak when Stella learned that Emma was cutting - a form of self-harm that many teenagers resort to in order to cope with feelings of numbness, anxiety, or guilt. This was followed by suicidal feelings and repeat trips to the emergency room. While they felt safe when she was in the hospital, the emergency department would always release her, telling her to “take her home, but if it gets worse you’re welcome to come back and sit (in the waiting room).”
It was ironic advice. Emma already felt like she was in a waiting room. She had felt that way for years – as if life would start for her if she could only overcome the insurmountable obstacles of her anxiety and depression.
Determined to get ‘out of the waiting room’, Stella sought counselling with CASA Child, Adolescent and Family Mental Health. The whole family began receiving treatment and support. Emma was admitted to CASA House – a residential treatment facility – and her brother Jake received his own outpatient counselling and support.
Having completed the CASA House program, Emma is now back at her local school, but the whole family continues to receive care. “My therapist is kind of like an extended family member,” says Emma. “It’s helped me a lot. I really don’t know where I’d be right now if I didn’t have somebody to talk to.”
Stella is grateful to CASA for its services, but all too aware of how her daughter’s journey back to health was made more painful by the stigma that surrounds mental illness. During the time that her daughter was an inpatient at CASA House, her son was also admitted to hospital with a heart condition. “One side met with a lot of well-wishes. The other side met with a lot of silence – people just didn’t know what to say.”
Stella and her family hope for a future where children, adolescents, and family members struggling with mental illness receive the same compassion, understanding, and quality of care as children suffering with other life-threatening illnesses, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.
“When we can start to break down barriers and recognize that pacemakers are really no more important than the brain, I think we will consider ourselves successful in the mental health field.”
It’s a compelling vision of the future. A future when mental illness is treated as an illness and not a label. A future where the organizations that provide mental health services are housed in state-of-the-art, purpose-built facilities. A future where no one needs to feel ashamed of their diagnosis and every child receives the full range of services and supports they need to get better.
As a young boy, Wyatt was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. In a relatively small and stable school environment, he managed to cope well with his schoolwork and peers. But when he started high school, life became very difficult. He felt alone and began shutting himself in his room, becoming increasingly isolated and withdrawn.
Soon, he was remaining in his room most of the time, missing school, and worrying his parents. Strapped for resources for teenagers like Wyatt, his school was unable to help and soon wrote him off as just another high school dropout.
Luckily, his parents did not. “We were at a place where Wyatt wasn’t able to come out of his bedroom. He wasn’t able to go to school, he wasn’t able to eat properly… we were just at our wit’s end,” says his mom Michelle. “When I heard about CASA, I begged, pleaded, and tried everything to get him in here.”
Wyatt began going to school at CASA as part of the Adolescent Day Program. “Coming here and having the opportunity to have therapy and still be able to do schoolwork was really awesome,” says Wyatt.
“Everything was there that he needed,” says his mom. “They were on top of things right away and asking him questions constantly, working with us, calling us...”
“At the beginning, he was scared – we were all scared – but as time went on he started spending less and less time in his room by himself. He was talking to us more; he was excited about things that were happening at school and would tell us about them; he was talking about his future; he was talking about getting a job and also he was starting to identify with the fact that mental health was an issue in his life as opposed to something like a cold that you could fix with a pill and move on.”
“It impacted me a lot,” says Wyatt. “I got so much courage and all these new strategies that I never learned before to overcome my problems and fears.”
Being able to talk about his situation in both group and individual therapy was challenging for the soft-spoken teenager, but ultimately very helpful. Of particular significance was the realization that he wasn’t alone in his illness – that others were struggling with similar issues.
The realization also helped him deal with the stigma of the disease. Before coming to CASA, “he wished he had cancer,” says his mom. “Because when kids have cancer, people come to the hospital to visit them and bring them stuff. People don’t do that when you have a mental health problem.”
“It’s going great now that I’m out. I got my life back on track, I’m going through school, I know what I want to do for my future,” says Wyatt. “It’s awesome.”
"When we can start to break down barriers and recognize that pacemakers are really no more important than the brain, I think we will consider ourselves successful in the mental health field."