Ashley Macdonald knows her story may be difficult for people to hear, and understand – at rock-bottom, she was cutting herself on a daily basis to cope with her anxiety.
But there’s a reason she’s sharing the details.
“I just want to get my voice heard and I want to spread some hope for other people, stop the stigma,” Macdonald said. “By standing up there and talking about it… that breaks that stigma.”
Macdonald, a White Rock resident, got involved with a 60-plus member local action team of the Child and Youth Mental Health and Substance Use Collaborative shortly after it formed in May, and will share her story at an event Nov. 17 at White Rock Elementary focused on youth and mental illness.
The speaker series – a suicide-prevention forum was held at Elgin Park Secondary in August and a resource night is set for Nov. 25 at Earl Marriott – is among the team’s efforts to address gaps in timely, co-ordinated access to mental-health services for children and youth.
At 19, Macdonald knows the need firsthand.
She started experiencing anxiety when she was in Grade 7, but it hit hardest in Grade 10, triggering an eating disorder and pattern of self-harm that landed her in and out of hospital – mostly in – for two years.
In school, it was almost routine for Macdonald to be removed from class for her behaviour; behaviour she says was a cry for help that authority figures didn’t recognize or know how to deal with.
Cutting, she says, was a blatant expression of, and distraction from, the pain she felt inside.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, such self-injury is more common during teenage years and among females. Those who self-harm are not typically trying to end their life, but to cope with difficult or overwhelming thoughts.
While Macdonald felt alone in her struggle, the reality is she’s far from it.
Dr. Rummy Dosanjh said statistics show anxiety disorders affect 22.7 per cent of youth locally.
“That’s pretty significant. If we don’t address it and we don’t equip people with the right necessary tools in order to recognize it… we’re really failing them,” the action-team physician said. “These kids are having a really hard, crippling time.”
While a degree of anxiety is normal, it becomes a problem when it interrupts daily routine, or gets in the way of learning, Dosanjh said. Signs can include an abrupt change in behaviour, withdrawal from activities, panic attacks and even physical pain.
School counsellors are reporting a high number of absences that can be linked to anxiety in students, added Kay Abelson, program co-ordinator of the White Rock-South Surrey Division of Family Practice.
“That number is growing daily. It’s really quite scary,” she said.
Parent Victoria Keddis said recognizing her now-adult son’s anxiety was instrumental in learning how to best live with it, both for him and as a family. From there, it was about developing strategies.
“As a parent when he was young, I always thought he was just a sensitive kid,” Keddis said.
Keddis said one mistake she made was not making her son do things that made him uncomfortable. That avoidance helped his anxiety grow because it made his world smaller, she said.
Strategies she’ll share with parents at the Nov. 17 event include noticing a child’s body signs.
“Most people don’t realize and don’t know what it is,” Keddis said of the disorder. “So many places in life, we’re told our kids are misbehaving. We’re not looking at (health) as an answer, we’re looking to be better parents.”
Macdonald said little things could have made a huge difference for her at school – for example, instead of being “left alone with my demons” when pulled from class, if someone had simply asked her what she needed.
“I’m a big sucker… for being loved, just feeling cared about,” she said, noting that if, during a panic attack, someone had said “let’s just breathe for now,” that would’ve helped a lot.
White Rock Elementary principal Fran Fagan said recognizing that anxiety can be an issue at any age is an important part of steps being taken at her school.
Efforts at Fagan’s school now include encouraging parents to walk at least part way to school with their child, to create a time for connecting; teaching deep-belly breathing; and starting the day with a moment of quiet.
Students are also taught that the principal and vice-principal’s office is a safe place, Fagan said, pointing to books, stuffies and juice that she keeps on hand to soothe children who come to her.
“I’ve had children come in, end up under my desk,” she said. “I leave them until they are ready.”
Macdonald described the steps as “absolutely amazing” – polar opposite to what she experienced, but an encouraging sign.
With an eye on a career in medicine, she wants others to know there is hope.
“I will always be anxious about things for the rest of my life, but I’m learning how to handle that. It doesn’t define me,” she said.
Tuesday’s event – aimed at youth 13 and older and parents and care providers – is set for 6:30-8 p.m. at White Rock Elementary, 1273 Fir St. The Nov. 25 event at EMS