It Takes a Village: Community raises mental health awareness

*Originally published in Milton Villager magazine.

One in five Canadians is diagnosed with mental illness, which makes it more common than cancer and diabetes. Many more cases of mental illness go undiagnosed because of the fear of judgment and rejection.

Sometimes sufferers of mental illness resort to suicide. This was the heartbreaking circumstance surrounding the recent suicide of 16-year-old Amber Regis, a local teen who struggled with depression.

Terri Naccarato, a friend of the family, organized an afternoon dessert soirée fund-raiser at the Teatro Conference and Event Centre on Feb. 3 to help Amber’s grieving family rebuild their lives after their tragic loss.

Saddened by local suicides over the years and having been impacted by family and friend’s depression, Terri felt compelled to do something to address the major issues leading to suicide.

“I had to do something,” she said. “This cannot be the only answer for a teen when they are struggling. We need to bring awareness to this horrible illness and bring the community together.”

The event, titled In Celebration of Amber’s Life: Bringing Awareness to Teen Depression/Suicide, featured a number of speakers who shared information about mental health and resources for Halton residents coping with mental illness.

Terri rallied local talent and business owners to donate time, talent, services and prizes for a silent auction, raffle and door prizes. Among those who donated their talents were magician/illusionist Tyler Fergus and teen singers Dylan D’Alessandro, Gavin McLeod and Lateisha Justino.

Aestheticians from Allegra Organic Spa & Boutique were on-site, offering manicures to attendees between speakers and performances. The goal of the event was to educate the community about depression and mental illness and to help remove the stigma that so often prevents people from seeking help.

“People are afraid to talk about [mental illness] because they feel that they are going to be stigmatized,” Tammy Whelen, a mental health educator with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), shared at the event. “They don’t want people at their job to know that they might deal with depression or schizophrenia because maybe they’ll get fired. Maybe their coworkers will bully them. Maybe their wife will leave them. These are all things that cross people’s mind. And it shouldn’t be that way.”

She says we have to look in the mirror and realize the problem starts with us. We’re stigmatizing people when we label them.

“Many people are frightened by what they don’t understand. The more we understand mental illness, the less likely we are to stigmatize sufferers,” Tammy said. “Who’s to say that someone who’s diagnosed with a mental illness, like depression, or schizophrenia, or bipolar, or anxiety disorder, cannot live a mentally healthy life?” she said. They can, she adds, by access community resources.

One of the things mental health professionals say we must understand is that mental illness is complicated. There is no one cause.

“Mental illness is the result of a complex interplay of genetics, biology, personality and environmental factors,” Wendy Caron, a social worker with Woodview Mental Health & Autism Services, explained to listeners. “And 49 per cent of people with mental illness do not seek treatment.” Wendy’s sister suffered from anxiety and depression and ultimately took her own life. She believes that the more we talk about it, the more likely people are to reach out for help and find an alternative to suicide.

There was a time when breast cancer was just a whisper on people’s lips. Now we wear pink ribbons and buy pink appliances and run for the cure every October, Wendy says. The same attention must be given to mental illness.

“We need not whisper when we say, ‘I have mental illness. I have depression,’” she said.

Becky, a teen facilitator with Lighthouse, a peer support program for grieving children, youth and their families, shared the story of her own sister’s battle with depression and why it’s so hard to understand mental illness. “It’s not like cancer or tuberculosis or any other kind of physical disease because it’s something you can’t see,” she shared. “She really pushed through and she really tried. And for three years she really gave it her all, but in the end, she took her life when she was 17 years old.”

The reality is that people do commit suicide. And as much as people are uncomfortable talking about mental illness, they are also uncomfortable talking about suicide.

“I think that the people who organized this today are just so great for doing this kind of thing in memory of Amber,” Becky said. “I really wish something like this happened in Oakville, where I’m from, because I know what I needed when [my sister] died was just a sense of community, caring, well-being. Just knowing that there were lots of people who were going to listen to me and understand and care.”

But how do we begin to support those who experience such painful losses, especially children who have lost siblings, parents and other loved ones? The answer is by helping them seek programs that will connect them with peers who are going through the same thing.

Melissa Hedman-Baker, clinical director of Lighthouse, says that it’s very common for grieving children to feel like nobody understands them, especially with their peers at school. “At the Lighthouse, they are amongst others who understand what it’s like,” she shared. “Even if the circumstances surrounding the death are different.”

As the speeches came to a close, handmade bookmarks were passed out by some teens from one of the programs run by Woodview.

“Each of these bookmarks have an individual message of hope from a kid that knows what it’s like to be depressed to another kid somewhere who may be struggling,” Wendy shared.

Wendy directed her final words to the supporters of the Regis family:

“How does someone move on from this kind of loss?” she began. “With the support of friends and family and community. Your cards, your visits, your casseroles, your ongoing support is what’s going to help this family come out of their darkness.”

The event was well received by attendees who engaged with speakers, requesting more information on how to best support teens in their community. “The only thing missing was more people,” said Hunter Foster, a local teen who attended the event.

“I learned a lot, and I wish there were more teens and youth there,” he said.

Not only was the event intended to educate the community, but to be a show of support for the Regis family. While many people were not able to attend, they showed support in other ways, and these gestures let the family know they are not alone.

“The community support is overwhelming,” Tara Regis, Amber’s mother, said. “We are so grateful for the love, prayers, words, gifts and events that our family, friends and community have blessed us with. Honestly, there are no words strong enough to share our appreciation. Thank you just does not do it justice.” Despite the Regis family’s tragic loss, they are able to reflect positively on Amber’s life and are proud of the person she was.

“Even in death we feel that Amber has brought amazing people into our lives that we may never have had the chance to meet otherwise,” Tara said.

She hopes that the event in Amber’s name will bring greater awareness to the issue of teen depression and promote open dialogue and trust between parents and their kids.

“We are hoping to be able to work with the community in the future to share Amber’s life and establish further supports for teens in the community who may be struggling with similar issues,” she said.

Loved ones described Amber as compassionate, intelligent and athletic. She went above and beyond to help her friends through tough times and brought a smile to the face of everyone she touched.

“She was a supportive friend, a fun-loving and protective big sister and an amazingly strong daughter who made us proud,” Tara said.

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