‘Crisis’ of depression, anxiety in schools highlighted by performer
On Tuesday last week the Robb Nash band performed in the gymnasium at St. Anthony’s, brought in by the school to speak to students about depression, anxiety, and suicide.
At one point, in front of a gymnasium full of high school students from St. Anthony’s and DVSS, Nash reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick wad of white papers.
“These are some of the suicide notes that students have given me in just the last two weeks we’ve been touring in Canada,” Nash said, holding the papers up in the air.
By the time the lineup of students waiting to speak to him finally cleared out of the gym over an hour after the event ended, Nash had a stack of razor blades and seven more suicide notes, adding to the many hundreds he has received from students over the years he’s toured schools.
“I’ve been thinking about relapsing after being 4 months clean,” wrote one of many attendees who posted on Nash’s Instagram after the show, “but after I got to talk to U and see your show I feel like I can be strong.”
“It’s a crisis,” says DVSS Principal Curtis LaPierre, who bussed over 200 of his high school students to St. Anthony’s to see Nash. “I have kids here that are paralyzed due to anxiety, who are not functional. And with it comes drug related issues, cutting, suicide, alcoholism.”
It’s not an isolated trend. Suicide rates were up 30 per cent in Alberta in 2015 compared to 2014, according to a late 2015 report, with commentators making connections with the recent recession and oilfield layoffs, and mental health issues in schools have been noticeably on the rise in recent years. LaPierre, who has been teaching for almost 30 years, says mental health issues are significantly more prevalent than what they used to be.
“We do everything we can. We have three counsellors here and they are run off their feet. But the support in the province in regards to mental health are significantly lacking in comparison to the support for physical illnesses. We’re often not equipped for severe cases.”
“There isn’t enough support now, for us,” agrees St. Anthony’s Principal JoAnne Akerboom, whose school arranged the Robb Nash visit.
“It seems to be a pretty heavy topic now, and given our economic conditions, people are under more stress and anxiety and it causes issues for everybody.”
“Sometimes there are limited resources in small, rural communities, so there is a concern about working together with the community to find greater mental health supports for the problems in our own community,” says Akerboom.
There has been increased economic support from the province, with metal health efforts in the province receiving a $10-million boost in the provincial budget unveiled in October, but reaction has
It's a crisis. I have kids here that are paralyzed due to anxiety, who are not functional." Curtis LaPierre, DVSS Principal
been slower than the needs of schools in treating mental health issues.
“The schools do not have adequate protocols established and enough details around support,” said LaPierre, who said Golden Hills School Division offers assessments with certified psychiatrists, but consultations are held in Strathmore only once a week and are often booked back-to-back with students. The schools do consult with Alberta Mental Health to get psychological and psychiatric assistance, but often the bureaucracy, wait times, and travel distances leave suicidal or depressed students waiting when they are in crisis and cannot afford to wait.
“It’s got to be deeper than what we currently have.”
LaPierre said school staff monitor student behaviour and meet often to discuss trends or differences they notice in certain students, noting things such as missed classes or losses in family, and most often are tipped off to a student’s concerning behaviour by friends or other students.
But there is only so much staff can do, and students are often reluctant to unveil their darkest thoughts, especially to a teacher.
“Teachers can be intimidating to talk to,” said DVSS high schooler Jessica Fernando, who has noticed the anxiety and depression that grips some of her classmates. “It’s hard because people put up a façade unless they really trust you. But there are a lot of great teachers here who try to bring in speakers, which can be helpful.”
Fernando is part of the Drumheller Connections leadership program at DVSS, which recently designed a mural for one of the library walls, a tree with virtues written along its branches and messages of self-worth self-encouragement that were handwritten on paper and hung by dozens of stu- dents.
As for why depression and anxiety have become such a prominent issue in schools, Fernando thinks students “are bombarded with images and expectations from society that’s thrown at us by social media, like the Kardashians and music videos and things like that, you know. I think we as a group (Connections) chose self worth and loving yourself as the issue to tackle because of this. If you really pay attention, you can always see the best in people, even if they’re struggling.”
“There are all kinds of suggestions and reasons as to why,” says Aker-
There are all kinds of suggestions and reasons as to why. People talk of technology, economic conditions, bullying, but there’s not one thing you can put your finger on and say “this is it”.” JoAnne Akerboom Principal, St. Anthony’s School
boom, “people talk of technology, economic conditions, bullying, but there’s not one thing you can put your finger on and say ‘this is it.’”
“There is some correlation with screentime, social media, and media in general,” says LaPierre, “media establishes a fearful mindset that allows anxiety to grow, along with social media being a medium of comparison with others and an amplification of the environment around them.”
“It’s an epidemic and it’s on the rise,” says Velma Peake of St. Luke’s Outreach Centre in Drumheller, who feels there’s a disconnect between the different medial bodies in the province in providing treatment to suicidal patients.
“The triage for mental health has to be better. And the connection between the general practitioners and mental health workers is not healthy.”
Peake, in conjunction with staff at St. Anthony’s and DVSS, is leading a Drumheller initiative to start the conversation on mental health here in this community. A public meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, April 19 at the Drumheller Public Library’s Program Room at 6 p.m. to arrange a focus group to discuss anxiety and depression disorders and the rampant rise of these disorders in Drumheller.
“Drum hell er as a community is lacking in resources, so let’s start the conversation to see what we can find.”
If you or someone you know is suffering and needs to talk, the Alberta Mental Health Help Line is 1-877-3022642 and offers confidential, anonymous service for crisis intervention and information about mental health programs and services.
The Robb Nash band was brought into St. Anthony’s last Tuesday to speak to students of that school and DVSS about depression, anxiety, and suicide. Nash is known for inviting students in giving him their suicide letters, and takes pledges from students over social media that they’ll stop self-harming (inset).
The Robb Nash Band performs in front of students at St. Anthony’s. The performer was brought in to to address mental health and confidence issues in students.