The statistics speak for themselves; according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, each year one in five Canadians struggle with mental health or addiction issues, and young people aged 15-24 are more likely than any other age group to experience substance abuse disorders and/or mental illness. With many of these issues exacerbated by stress, young people in the child welfare system are particularly vulnerable to developing problems, while few have the resources they need to access proper treatment.

Former co-host of CTV’s Canada AM and spokesperson for Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign, Seamus O’Regan is an advocate for mental health awareness, a growing cause that is also being championed through Mental Health Week (May 5-11).

“I believe in communication, I believe in speaking openly,” says O’Regan, who on a personal level has struggled with mental illness. “Initially when we talked about mental health it would be the experts; the psychologists, psychiatrists, the scientists,” he says. Witnessing Canada’s transition to speaking about mental health in a “very public, national way”, he says that one of his proudest moments on Canada AM was when they dedicated an entire show to raising mental health awareness, a largely uncharted territory in broadcasting that resulted in extraordinary public feedback.

“The stigma [surrounding mental health] is preventing people from getting well.”

One of the largest barriers for those suffering from mental illness, including youth, is its abstract nature; people have difficulty understanding the depth of someone’s struggles when they’re in their mind as opposed to their observable body. O’Regan perfectly describes these misconceptions and accompanying shame by sharing his encounter with a soldier who, upon returning from Afghanistan with PTSD,  said in some ways wished he’d instead come home as an amputee. “There’s this feeling of ‘how do you know when somebody’s better’ or there’s a suspicion that maybe somebody’s faking it,” he says. “I just know there a lot more people that suffer innocently than there are people that would abuse the system.”

As for young people struggling with mental illness, O’Regan says that “it’s really important that we talk to young people [about mental health] because they’ve got a lot going on already.” The struggle from childhood to adolescence is fraught with difficulties, and for a young person in the foster care system, the insecurity of not having a stable home or family environment adds even more pressure. To support young people in these situations, the Children’s Aid Foundation has established a healing and recovery pillar that provides counselling, therapies, group support, and access/referrals to medical support.

Find out more about the Foundation’s efforts to assist kids in the child welfare system struggling with mental health issues by clicking here.

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