09/23/2016 08:00 EDT | Updated 09/23/2016 08:00 EDT

Young People Need Early Access To Mental Health Care

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I was 16 when I had my first full panic attack. I sat clutching my French horn (yes, I played the French horn), waiting for a solo in a school band performance, and found I couldn't catch my breath. My stomach and chest felt impossibly tight. This wasn't an average case of nerves: my entire body responded to the fear of playing music publicly with what I now understand to be chronic anxiety. I felt I might die.

I managed that day to slow my breathing just enough so I could finish my solo without the audience knowing that, moments before, I'd had the intense urge to run away or barf. And I went on to reason away many similar moments, hiding them from myself and others. It took me the next 20 years, earning a PhD in the sociology of mental health, becoming a parent, undergoing three kinds of therapy, working in a national mental health organization and liaising with youth mental health advocates to identify that I went through intense anxiety as a teenager and young adult.

I still do experience anxiety from time to time, though I've learned to live with it in a healthier way -- through acceptance, a willingness to receive love from friends and family, and treatment from qualified professionals.

It's clear we need psychological services to be better woven into our public health-care system across Canada.

For me, figuring out and seeking treatment for my anxiety has been a healing and affirming process. But I often wonder: how would my childhood and teenage years have been different if I had a vocabulary for understanding my anxiety? If my parents, siblings or friends did? If I had early access to therapy or other kinds of treatment -- or even just a way to talk about my anxiety and resulting depression? As a teenager, I rightfully found it difficult to find a language for something shrouded in silence and discrimination.

Given what we know as researchers about the prevalence of mental health problems and illnesses in Canadian youth -- in 2011 an estimated 1.04 million young people ages nine to 19 were living with a mental illness, which means almost one in four -- there's a strong case for giving primary health care a larger role in mental health.

If young people can't access services in the community because of long wait times, or find support through a family doctor, they end up in emergency rooms -- which only increases wait times and drains existing resources.

As research also shows, psychotherapies and clinical counselling are cost effective and improve outcomes for many people living with mild to moderate depression and anxiety, if they're provided by qualified people and delivered early. It's clear we need psychological services to be better woven into our public health-care system across Canada. Comprehensive and integrated community-based care can meet young people where they are: in schools, at work, or even online.

But if we're going to advocate for community-based care, we need to identify which communities need specific supports, and why. The fact that I eventually accessed the right help for anxiety is, after all, a matter of privilege. My gender, race, sexual orientation, class and education afforded me tremendous access.

We live in a country where some populations are chronically underserved by our current health system and face disparities in their health status; First Nations, Inuit and Métis youth are foremost among them, and youth suicide is in full crisis in many northern and remote communities across Canada. And if you're a young person who is also LGBTQ2S, living in poverty, or a newcomer to Canada, you are more likely to face unique mental health challenges early in your life.

Attending carefully to these social determinants of health -- and truly listening to young people who experience inequality, poverty, and systemic barriers to care, without tokenizing them -- is crucial if we want to improve how our mental health system cares for youth.

I regularly find hope and optimism when I engage with the Mental Health Commission of Canada's Youth Council, a group of exceptional young people who have lived experience with mental illness -- either personally or through a family member or friend. They embody the principles of recovery and resilience and are open, lively, smart advocates for systemic change. Most of all, by engaging in advocacy projects, informing us as policy makers, and speaking to their peers and to the media to break the stigma around mental illness, these inspiring young people are finding new vocabularies for what it means to live through mental health issues early in life.

I'd like to take this opportunity to acknowledge Maddie's family, who, under terrible circumstances, have courageously furthered the difficult conversation about youth suicide in Canada. Thank you for sharing your story about Maddie, for inspiring others to speak, especially youth, and for your own strength and resilience in the wake of loss. My love and respect to everyone who has been directly or indirectly affected by suicide.

If you or someone you know is at risk please contact your nearest Crisis Centre or call Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 to speak to a counsellor.

Frame Of Mind is a new series inspired by The Maddie Project that focuses on teens and mental health. The series will aim to raise awareness and spark a conversation by speaking directly to teens who are going through a tough time, as well as their families, teachers and community leaders. We want to ensure that teens who are struggling with mental illness get the help, support and compassion they need. If you would like to contribute a blog to this series, please email

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