I was volunteering at an event for single mothers recently.  It was a lovely evening put on by a local church to give busy single mom’s a break from everyday life.  A chance for them to get their hair and make-up done, have dinner prepared and served to them and win lots of nice prizes while their children enjoyed food and crafts in the free daycare below. 

I was on kitchen duty helping to plate the food and struck up a conversation with one of the other volunteers.  I asked her how she came to be involved with this organization.  Without skipping a beat she explained that she had lost her son 2 years ago to a drug overdose and she wanted it to mean something.  She didn’t know what that meant but in search of answers, she found comfort in this community because it was a place free of judgment.  A place of compassion, support, vulnerability and imperfection. 

My heart stopped as I choked back my tears.  Tears for this beautiful woman and her loss and also tears of pain.  As she spoke, all I could envision was my 17-year old son who, just less than two short months prior was fighting for his life while he lay still in an induced comma, on life-support in a cold hospital bed.  

It’s ironic that May 31st marks the last day of mental health awareness month and is the same day my son turns 18.  Just a short five months ago, we weren’t sure if he would get here.

It was a cold Saturday morning in January just after the holidays and right before school picked up again on Monday.  His older sister, my daughter, entered my son’s room after her dog would not stop barking at his closed door (a true miracle and a story all on its own).  She found him lying on the floor with a very low pulse and barely audible breath.  She immediately started administering CPR and called 911. 

I came rushing in to find her frantically trying to keep him alive, she continued compressions and we stayed on the line with the 911 operator waiting for what seemed to be an eternity for the ambulance to arrive.  With barely a pulse, they rushed him to the hospital where he was assessed.  It was bad.  He had overdosed and aspirated which means that he vomited during his unconscious state and the vomit had entered his lungs causing a bacterial pneumonia.  He could not breath on his own so was put on life support while they induced a coma to give his body a chance to try and heal.  We were told that the next 24 hours were critical.  We spent the next 4 days in critical care and in the end unlike this poor woman’s son, we did not lose our precious child to the mental health issues that fueled his addiction.

Both of my children have suffered with depression and anxiety to varying degrees, each of them coping in their own way.  In his early teens, my son turned to drugs to numb the pain. Although we went through a roller coaster of a ride during this time, he did attend counseling, group therapy and ultimately a five-month in-house rehabilitation program geared to youths.  These programs, especially the youth rehabilitation program, provided some great tools to treat the addiction issues and to combat future drug use, however, nothing was done to address the root cause of the problem – the mental health issues. 

There are so many factors and variables that contribute to mental health issues these days, not the least of which is the social media driven world in which we live.  That said, my son and I have had this conversation and both of us truly believe with all our hearts that as a society if we advocated for and received better education for our children, many of these mental health issues could be avoided.  Not scholastic education but non-academic education, education on developing our children’s emotional intelligence.  EQ over IQ. Too much emphasis is placed on achieving high grades and not enough focus on teaching our children about the social and emotional skills they need in life. We are not teaching our children that perfection is a myth – that they are good enough, they are bright enough, and are strong enough.  When we focus on developing our children’s self-esteem, self-respect, self-worth and teach them self-love, they will stop believing that they are not skinny enough, not smart enough, not handsome or pretty enough. When we teach them to love themselves for who they are, that they are unique and intelligent in their own way and that they have something to offer the world, to offer themselves, to offer society – only then can they truly love themselves, their life and others.  If our schools focused on developing our children’s’ emotional intelligence at an early age, providing them the tools that they need, our children would have no choice but to develop the behaviours based on the belief that they have everything within them to succeed in life and that they are enough.  This would certainly lead to less cases and/or reduced levels of anxiety, less depression, less drug addiction and less suicide.

This is one of the most difficult articles I’ve ever written. To share the most intimate details of my family’s life and my son’s personal struggle.  To relive the despair of almost losing my youngest child (that image – the image that will never leave my mind).  The all-consuming feelings of shame, guilt, inadequacy and heartbreak for not being able to protect my child from this pain of life.  The fact he has endured so much in his short eighteen years.

I wrote this article for two reasons.  One – to hopefully provide comfort to other parents of children with mental health issues and to let them know – you are not alone.  It’s a long and difficult road but being able to take solace in the fact you are not alone is sometimes just enough to help you through the most difficult days.  And two – to raise awareness in society and help eliminate the mental health stigma. The Canadian Mental Health Association estimates that 10% – 20% of youth suffer from mental health issues and this number is growing so I urge people to think before jumping to conclusions and ill-conceived thoughts the next time you encounter a troubled youth.  Be compassionate to the fact they may simply be trying to cope with life the best way they can with the limited tools they’ve been given.  Before passing judgement on our children and their parents, try opening your heart and your mind to empathy.  These issues are real and prevalent, and chances are they are closer to you than you may think – within your own family, your friends and in your community.  Help stop the stigma and choose to be a part of the solution.