Mental Illness Increasing
Among Young -
Suicides Growing
HALIFAX (CP) - Barb Haley recalled the deaths of her two sons Friday as she addressed a symposium that suggested more young people are suffering mental illnesses that could lead to suicide. "My youngest son, Luke, was a little guy with a really impish little grin who delighted in hiding the TV controller on his father," said Haley. "His favourite expression was, 'That wouldn't be prudent.' At the age of 12, he did something very imprudent and he took his own life."
The following year, Haley's 16-year-old son Ben committed suicide after battling grief and depression. "(He) just felt he should have known about his brother and blamed himself," Haley told an audience of more than 400 psychiatrists, teachers and social workers.
There were few signs Luke, who Haley described as a smiling, happy child, was troubled. But the two boys did suffer migraine headaches, an illness affecting the central nervous system that Haley believes spurred their deaths. Haley's painful story was all too familiar to Maritime health workers who gathered to warn that mental illness capable of leading to suicide is occurring earlier and in greater severity.
Vivek Kusumakar, head of child and adolescent psychiatry at Dalhousie University, said today's children suffer problems more commonly associated with adults. "We're beginning to learn that our old concept that children just grow out of it, that it's only adults who develop psychiatric disorder, is wrong," he said.
Kusumakar said one in five young people suffer from some form of mental illness, which can range from attention deficit disorder to schizophrenia.
Geneticists have noted higher incidences of mental illnesses at younger ages and that some conditions appear earlier in successive generations.
This, combined with greater stresses and greater access to weapons and harmful drugs, has led to increased suicide rates, said Kusumakar. "The means of suicide can be available more readily ... whether it be through guns, through drugs, through prescribed medications, or even motor vehicle accidents," Kusumakar said.
A symposium news release stated that suicide now surpasses car accidents as the leading cause of death among adolescents, having increased 156 per cent over the last 20 years.
It cited the Canadian Mental Health Association for its numbers, but an association spokesman said suicide was only a leading cause of death among men aged 25 to 30. Statistics Canada figures from 1997 put suicide second only to car accidents as a leading cause of death for people aged 14 to 25.
However, many experts believe that between three and five per cent of car deaths were actually suicide-related, said Kusumakar. "We know that a small but significant number of motor vehicle accidents may be related to very high risk-taking suicidal behaviours."
Parents and school officials were alarmed earlier this year by a spate of teen suicides at a New Brunswick high school. Three Dieppe students killed themselves during the previous school year and six have died in the past four years.
A report card on the health of Canadians revealed in September that teens felt increasingly stressed out and that 18- and 19-year-olds were most prone to depression out of all age groups. "The world that we're living in now is much more complex and difficult for all people," said Rod Evans, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at a Halifax children's hospital. "(Youngsters) are dealing with a broader range of social difficulties than they were (before)."
Illnesses facing children include behavioural problems such as attention deficit disorder and ones that persist into adulthood, such as schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorders and eating disorders.
However, Evans said most children are physically and mentally healthy. "The adolescent turmoil of continued angst and chronic sadness and conflict with parents, that's really a myth," he said. "The majority of adolescents are very functional."
Unfortunately, the myth tends to influence how society and parents see youngsters, said Evans, keeping some children from getting the treatment they need.
"If they do suffer problems of long-term sadness, I think there's a tendency to see it as just a problem of growing up, whereas in fact it isn't. It's usually the sign of some kind of problem that needs attention."