I’ve debated long and hard whether to share one of the reasons why I participate in Bell’s Let’s Talk day (#BellLetsTalk) and why it’s so important to me to participate in something that has a goal to end the stigma associated with mental illness and bring awareness to something that knows no gender, faith, income, age, or race.
After giving birth to my son, three different people stopped by our hospital room to discuss postpartum depression (PPD) and how to recognize the signs of it. I was about to lose my mind by the time the third person walked in and I repeated the same thing to each one of them- “Depression and anxiety runs in my family, I have suffered from both to different extents throughout my life and have seeked professional treatment for both. I am lucky enough that I personally know the signs of what depression looks like for me and trust me, I will be the first to let you and my family know if something is going on with me.” Every single one of those words was truthful. Depression runs in my family. One of my grandfather’s even received shock therapy as part of his treatment. I’ve witnessed depression shuffle from different family members until eventually it came to my own experiences with mental illness. I learned what it was like to have an eating disorder and compulsive need for exercise consume you. I learned what it was like to not be able to physically get out of bed in the morning to be on time for the bus to get to University, until I was strong enough to leave the abusive relationship that I was in and love myself again. I learned what it was like to depend on an anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications to get me through the day. I also learned how hard it was to make the appropriate changes to not have to experience this every day and to keep it at bay. I have been lucky enough to be blessed with the ability to be very self-aware and proactive, as I know many others struggle to recognize signs of depression for themselves. My past has educated me to better help my future and my family’s future. One day the time will come when I have to discuss family history of depression and anxiety to my children and there should be no shame in needing to do so. I’ve never been ashamed to discuss mental illness and I am one of those people that can’t understand, but who understands at the same time, why there is a stigma surrounding it.
But I’m not writing today regarding my own experiences and to share my own story. I’m writing to honour the life of a student that many of us loved so dearly, who was so desperate to find peace and escape the pain of everyday life that despite being of Islam faith, she took her own life.
There is a piece of advice that I know not only teachers hear in their line of work, but any type of profession that deals with children and family life hears- “Don’t take your work home with you.” Now yes we have marking, planning, report cards, etc, to bring home with us, but the advice is to not take your students’ life home with you or it’ll consume you. I had a lot of trouble abiding by this rules and I have the utmost respect for moms and dads who return to work after having children, have to try and abide by that small but important piece of advice, and then return home to their own child/children at the end of the day and forget it all until picking it up the next day.
H.A. was one of those students who I always took home with me in my heart and in my mind. Her family situation, disposition, and physical condition at school rarely left my mind for the years that I was lucky enough to teach her. In the beginning, grade 7, she drove me crazy. She rarely stayed awake for any of my classes and was always late…I mean always late. She would run in to class 5 minutes late trying to take the corner to get through the door gracefully and that never happened. Sometimes it was one boot on and one boot off, bag ¾ open with books falling everywhere, and coat hanging off of one arm. Seriously, I’m laughing so hard picturing her in my mind right now. H.A. was the definition of a “Hot Mess” for all of junior high. After a few minutes of her sitting down in her seat you’d notice that she wasn’t doing anything. To prevent her from nodding off, you’d question why she wasn’t doing anything. One of two things would then happen, she would tell you that she didn’t have a pencil, while never making eye contact, or you’d then further investigate that she was reading a book in her lap, hiding it under her desk. Because there was something different about her, I would laugh and joke with her, all the while being frustrated about how she could be so late for class and still not be prepared. She would laugh back and then go on a mission for a writing utensil, rarely returning with one and if she did return with one, you were pretty sure she pulled it out off the lost and found, asked the office, or found one haphazardly on the hallway floor. I was also guilty of allowing her to roam the halls because it was one less distraction to deal with in the classroom.
By grade 8, this behaviour, that you would expect to slowly fade out as a student matures, never stopped. If anything it got worse, leading to increased frustration for both her and her teachers. Complaints of stomach pain, coughing up blood, hunger, and a constant need to race to the washroom became a regular occurrence during class…if she wasn’t sleeping through class. Her marks also became increasingly dismal. The more I talked one on one with H.A., the more I learned about her inner pain and environment outside of school. This was one of the loneliest and sweetest girls that I had ever met. She was a broken soul who just wanted to feel better. Along with many other things, she had trouble sleeping, had trouble getting out of bed when she did sleep, and complained of where she had to sleep. She was from a broken home. She was depressed. The signs couldn’t have been more clear- H.A. was suffering from depression both mentally and physically. I also believed however, that there was more to it than depression and that she was physically ill. I began to contact her mother on a regular basis, when we were able to have current contact information for her. It got to the point that I felt H.A.’s mother was not doing everything that she could for H.A. so when H.A. was coughing up blood that I told her mother that she was picking her up from school, taking her to the Stollery, and that I was meeting them there to watch them register and admit her so that she could be seen. I did just that. According to her mom, the results of the tests that the Stollery ran came back as normal. How frustrating this was for us at school because this situation wasn’t “normal”. This further supported my thinking that H.A. was depressed. Why was no one else catching this?
Throughout her grade 8 year, I tried so many ways to work with her academically and there just wasn’t a whole lot of progress happening, so I requested to have her tested. This was swept under the rug as no one seemed to care and there were other students who could benefit more from it. A child in H.A.’s situation needed to experience success in some area- any area. How can she do this if we weren’t offering her the best learning environment and support? She was offered the support of meeting with the Success Coach at our school at the time. It was better than nothing and at least she got to talk more with someone who cared. When summer holidays were upon us during that grade 8 year, I asked a member of our administration what to do about H.A. I didn’t want to let her go for two months. I wanted to be able to check in. I was advised that I could make contact if I felt that was the best thing to do, otherwise, our work ended in June and for those two shorts months, there wasn’t much we could do. My exact words were at the end of my conversation with admin were, “If we don’t do something, we are going to get a call that H.A. has killed herself.” The look that I got when I made that comment was of complete shock. I left it at that. It needed to be said.
When September rolled around for her grade 9 year and H.A. strolled into class, I couldn’t have been happier to see her. I was prepared for a whirlwind, but I was so thrilled to see her again. That year, H.A. hit the jackpot for having the greatest support team of teachers who recognized the same things that I had been seeing and we were able to push to have her tested. We knew she was smart, very smart in many areas, there was just something missing. A couple of her other teachers could read her exams, ask her to answer questions verbally, and she would ace the exam. If you gave her that same exam and ask her to fill it out on paper, she would maybe write 10 words total. How had these last years been a fair judgment of her knowledge? They hadn’t.
During this grade 9 year, H.A. was in one of the craziest classes she could have been put in, but it was also one with the kindest group of girls. These girls started to take note of how I treated H.A. and took her under their wing. H.A. began to arrive to class on time or late with a friend (if she was in attendance), these friends shared their food with her when she was hungry, these friends offered her a place to sit near them, these friends included her in their group work, even if she slept through most of it, and these friends loved H.A. for H.A. No one messed with her. She had a safe place. Heck, she even wore make up some days and fancy boots to school! But that was just a front for everyone. The damage was already done- there was no turning back. I had consistent conversations with H.A. regarding home life, family situations, her outlook on life, etc and she was falling farther and farther into depression. I spoke with any and every family member that I could and was cautious in doing so as depression and suicidal thoughts are not treated in the Islam faith as they are for many other belief systems. I had to tread lightly as to show respect for her and her family while trying to get her the best help that I could. Nothing ever got better and I felt I had nowhere left to turn so I phoned social services. Twice. Both times, I explained H.A.’s state of depression, her troubles when at home, and my concern for her well-being. Both times, I was told that everything was fine and that H.A.’s family was aware that help was there if needed. I had to just trust in the system and hope that nothing happened.
After those calls and feeling really helpless, the best that I could do was just love her. All of her teachers tried to make the best of the classes that we had with her. Powerlessly, we just loved her. We encouraged her to come to school, we offered her a safe place, we fed her, we listened to her, we cried with her, and we hugged her. It wasn’t long and grade 9 came to an end and we had to go our separate ways. H.A. was headed off to high school with many of the classmates who grew to love her and was leaving her adult support system behind.
A month into H.A.’s grade 10 year, I was 6 months pregnant with our daughter when she was born prematurely at 27 weeks. I never returned to my classroom after that. About a month after my daughter was born, I received a call from a colleague and friend of mine who felt that I needed to know that H.A. had taken her own life. No one else was going to tell me, as they felt that I was dealing with enough with my daughter being in the NICU. I was so angry and so sad. After everything that I had done to try and help this lost young woman, 1. She committed suicide which I feared would happen, 2. The system failed her in so many ways, and 3. I wouldn’t have known had it not been for my dear friend who I taught with at that junior high school. I was so angry that when I wasn’t doing Kangaroo care with my daughter in the NICU, I was writing a letter, a long letter, to our government who failed a child and let her fall through the cracks when the signs were so blatantly obvious that help was needed. One day however, I stopped writing. What was the point of writing the letter? No one listened a year ago or two years ago, why would they listen to me now? Plus it was too late. H.A. was gone. She wasn’t coming back.
Not only did I feel guilty, but her peers felt guilty as well. We all wished that we had done more. No teenager should have to go through those feelings of guilt or be explained that they did the best that they could, especially when the correct tools weren’t offered from our own government and organizations that are supposed to be there to protect children like H.A. I am left with the guilt of not having been able to do more for this sweet but lonely young woman who was so depressed that she was so certain that leaving this world would be of benefit to her and her family that she took her own life, all the while knowing that in Islam it is one of the greatest sins to commit suicide (to take a life whether someone else’s or your own) and that she may never rest peacefully*.
So this leaves me with the opportunity to do my part in helping to end the stigma associated with mental illness and to support a cause such as Bell’s Let’s Talk Day in the hopes that the money raised will help people like H.A. and their families attain the resources that they need to help and heal, that it will help people like H.A. live their dreams and become what they aspire to be, and that it will give people like H.A. the care that they deserve. At the end of the day, if we haven’t gone through some form of mental illness ourselves, most of us know someone who has. It’s nothing to be ashamed of or keep hidden. So for you H.A., I share your story in the hopes that this will prevent even just one more child from having to go through the pain and suffering that you endured for far too long in our broken and financially-strained system. I think about you all of the time and I know that your junior high family does as well. I hope that you are at peace- I believe that you are at peace. You are loved.
“On Bell Let’s Talk Day, Bell will donate 5¢ more towards mental health initiatives in Canada, by counting every text, call, tweet, Instagram post, Facebook video view and Snapchat geofilter.”
For more information on how to participate in Bell’s Let’s Talk Day on Wednesday, January 25th, 2017, you can head to http://letstalk.bell.ca/en/. You don’t have to have Bell or Virigin Mobile as your carrier to participate either. You can do so through most forms of social media (Facebook, twitter, Instagram) using the hashtag #BellLetsTalk or by using Bell’s geofilter on snapchat.