Over the years, I’ve sometimes heard this phrase from misinformed members of our school community. As someone who takes pride in the good work we do, and as someone who has their own challenges with anxiety, I can confidently say that this is an absurd statement and can respond in two ways.
First, these statements usually come from community members who, with good reason, don’t know what’s happening on a daily basis in the school, specifically the Student Services Office. As someone who has worked in the office for the last 8 years, I can confidently say we have supported students throughout their various mental health challenges; we don’t announce or discuss personal issues with anyone other than the student involved and their families. Confidentiality is extremely important when dealing with these sensitive matters.
Second, 9 years ago, my father approached me and said that he couldn’t see properly out of his left eye and that it looked like he was wearing sun glasses when he wasn’t. I directed him to his family doctor who immediately referred him to a specialist at Toronto General Hospital. By the end of the week, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. This was in October, and by January he had passed away. After his death, I was fortunate to have a great supportive network that included friends, family and the school community. After going through the normal grieving process, I was able to return to work and continue with my life. I didn’t understand it until it was pointed out to me by my family doctor, but after going through that experience and having lost my father so quickly to cancer, I was left with a strong phobia of falling ill, specifically to a terminal illness.
When I catch a cold, or the flu (or even pneumonia which I caught over this Christmas break!) aside from a little discomfort, I am able to persevere. Over the years however, I’ve had some things that my doctor has wanted to investigate further. My blood levels have indicated reduced kidney function, which my doctor now attributes to dehydration. After my 7th concussion from playing competitive soccer, my doctor suggested I get an MRI on the head. My result indicated a clear brain scan; however a nodule was found in my thyroid. The nodule was biopsied, and the results came back inconclusive. After further testing, the doctor confirmed it was benign.
As recent as this past summer, after an abdominal ultrasound, a tumour showed up on my liver. I went for an MRI just after labour day and the results came back, again benign – something called a liver hemangioma which sounds a lot scarier than it is! I will spare everyone the rest of my medical history, only to say that on almost a yearly basis, after my annual physical, something is a little off that needs to be further examined and when that happens it throws me into somewhat of a tailspin. Looking back, nothing seems logical. Time and time again, I’ve spent hours and days with Dr. Google who inevitably always leads me down a rabbit hole that I can’t help go down and that always inevitably leads my search to cancer.
Last year I was even laughed at when I tried to tell someone that I understood what someone else experiencing symptoms of anxiety was going through. I was told that because I always seem so calm and stress free, I was kidding myself and had no clue. In my opinion, this was coming from someone without a clue, as a quick discussion with someone who’s experienced it, can easily relate, understand and confirm what someone else is going through. I view that situation as a positive as it helped me relate to others who may be afraid to speak about their mental health challenges for fear of being laughed at or not believed. I know what it feels like to show something on the outside, that is quite different from what’s going on inside.
As of today, I am in good health and I do not have any other lingering concerns. I share this to give context to the anxiety I have experienced. In each of these situations (and more I didn’t mention), I had convinced myself I had cancer or some other terminal illness. The time it took from receiving the original news to getting the results or meeting with a specialist can sometimes be months. While waiting, every day, all day I was left with a feeling that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
I would go days without sleeping, I’ve experienced shortness of breath, chest pain and heart palpitations, as I went about my days. I would feel weak and would not want to leave my house. I would sweat uncontrollably, and it felt as though there was a massive weight on my face and there was nothing I could do to remove it. I’ve even had to duck into a bathroom for a minute to calm down so I wouldn’t show my panic to others. The only relief from it all was when the doctor told me that the tests were in and there was nothing to be concerned about.
This is something I struggle with and I am working on controlling. I think of myself as fortunate for two reasons. First, I know the triggers of the anxiety I have experienced and second, the anxiety I have experienced has not crept into other aspects of my life. Others aren’t as fortunate; they have to live with it on a daily basis. Moreover, anxiety is just one of the many mental health illnesses out there. We know that 1 in 5 people will experience mental illness and we know that through early intervention, there is a greater likelihood of a quick and sustained recovery.
To circle back, I’ve shared this information to reassure the community that as an administrator at the school, I can confidently say “De La Salle” most certainly does care about the mental health and wellbeing of its students and we always have and will continue to do what we can to support our students.
Earlier in the year, I reported back to the school community about the results from our school wide survey. While many things were addressed this year, one thing stood out: A self-reported concern from our students regarding mental health. Moreover, CAMH released results from a province wide survey indicating that the mental health of students in Ontario needs to be addressed. After reviewing the data, we recognized that we needed to prioritize the mental health of our students to ensure that when they leave De La Salle, they are not only equipped academically for university, they are also resilient enough to handle the many challenges they will soon encounter in adulthood.
Moving forward, a committee has been selected and will meet throughout the second term. The goal is to review the health and wellness strategy, with a focus on mental health at De La Salle as part of the overall educational programme of the school to ensure that all students are well-served and that such strategies instill Catholic and Lasallian values. To be clear, I am not promoting this because of my experiences. My experiences have allowed me to better understand more clearly the importance of educating students on what mental health really is. After reviewing many articles and most recent research on mental health programming in schools, I have learned a lot and I look forward to working with the committee to make recommendations to the school. Recent research is clear; an effective mental health strategy in schools should have the following four integrated components: understand how to optimize and maintain good mental health, understand mental health disorders and their treatments, decrease stigma, and increase health seeking efficacy. Moreover, because students spend the majority of their time in school, the classroom is the ideal place for students to learn these components.
Our ultimate goal, regardless of the final recommendations, is that we want to ensure the programming we implement is significant and sustainable. The committee will focus on how all members of the community can best support our students. Committee members include four teachers, a guidance counsellor, an administrator, three students and two parents. Perspectives from all stakeholders will be considered when recommendations are put forward. In September I was fortunate to hear Dr. Stanley Kutcher speak. Dr. Kutcher is a world leader in adolescent mental health, and I approached him after his presentation to see if he would work with us. Fortunately, he knew of De La Salle and agreed to consult with our committee on the recommendations we put forward. Dr. Kutcher is also a recent appointee to the senate by Prime Minister Trudeau.
By the end of the year, the committee will make recommendations to the administration for programming on how administrators, guidance counsellors, parents and teachers can work together to help support our students. Further information will be communicated to the community when the final recommendations are approved. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out.