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Youth Event Talks Mental Health & Addiction

Experts, guest speakers discuss tough topics with students

A daylong event aimed at educating young people about mental health and addictions may have accomplished its goal last week.

It’s called Talking To Youth Live (TTYL), a yearly venture jointly organized by the Sun West School Division and Heartland Health Region that puts a spotlight on mental health awareness and addiction issues by providing students with a handful of experts that lead discussions on the topics in a workshop-style atmosphere.

Held on Thursday, March 16 at the Outlook Alliance Church, this year’s TTYL event brought Grade 8 students from Outlook, Loreburn, Kenaston and Davidson together to learn about mental health issues and what addiction to substances such as drugs and alcohol can do to affect their lives.

Liza Dahl, a Davidson-based addictions educator with Sun West, said the goal was to start a discussion with the students that hopefully leads to them being able to communicate in the future if they find themselves going down a dark path and facing these types of issues.

“The purpose of the day is to have an opportunity for students to talk with professionals and start a discussion about mental health and addictions, and open that door to be able to talk about it openly,” she said.  “We have a variety of people that makes up our team; we have addictions counsellors, child abuse counsellors, school counsellors, a psych nurse, and just a variety of experts.  My role is as an addictions educator, so it’s very much prevention-based.”

After everyone had arrived and sat down in the church, Dahl went over how the event would be laid out, which included breaking up the groups of students into different areas of the building to participate in discussion panels and games that injected some fun into perhaps a not-so-fun topic.  For example, Kenaston students played a game of Kerplunk that incorporated answering questions about different drugs and their roles in addictions, while Outlook students played games that helped reflect the effects of using substances and the feeling of being impaired.  Other areas included talks on mental health, choices & consequences, and practical ways to maintain mental wellness.

Following lunch, the students heard from a pair of guest speakers who related to them their own experiences with addiction.

Christa Kernohan, originally from Biggar, said she may not be the stereotypical addict that typically gets portrayed in film and TV, as she said that she came from a normal home with a normal family.  But she always felt like as if she didn’t fit in with others.

“I always had these feelings inside of me that I was different; I didn’t feel like I fit in and wouldn’t reach peoples’ expectations,” she said.

She had her first taste of alcohol at the age of 12, and from there, Christa “started to use more and more”, resulting in her grades slipping.  She still managed to go to university, where she said she did okay.  For her, life was “normal” on the outside, but hard on the inside.

“I still managed to do things in my life all through my addiction, and that doesn’t get talked about much,” said Christa.

Things got so bad for her that a friend reached out and told her she couldn’t go down that path alone, so she went to treatment, which Kernohan stresses isn’t the 100% problem-solver for addiction.

“There’s no cure for addiction, but there *is* treatment,” she told the students.

To this day, though she hasn’t had a drop of alcohol since October of 2014, Christa still struggles, but she finds that talking to others and helping to educate students is a great tool in keeping herself sober.

Ryan Oscar, another small town person, had a different story than his friend Christa.  Ryan grew up in a household with a strong, demanding father; the kind of dad who was a prototypical “man’s man” who never showed emotion.

“In my dad’s house, it was not OK to cry,” said Ryan.  “I wanted to be like my dad, so I never asked for help and never cried.  I was always trying to live up to this expectation that he had.”

Oscar’s introduction to alcohol came when he started playing hockey, wanting to “be one of the boys” and crack open some cold ones and show he was one of them.  Inside though, he was searching for a way to communicate to others that he was mentally suffering.

“I knew what pain was, but I didn’t know how to show it,” said Ryan.

After his father died in 2006, Oscar’s addiction skyrocketed, and it was around that time that he was introduced to hard drugs, which soon took over his life.

“I was buying it on my own, using it on my own; for me, it was a necessity and my body began to demand it,” he said.

It reached the point where nobody would talk to Ryan, and he ended up in the hospital after a failed suicide attempt before he went to treatment.  Unfortunately, Ryan ended up relapsing and kept using drugs.

“I was so full of shame,” he said.  “It took away my wife, my job, my car, and I ended up in my truck one night and I tried ending it all again.”

Fortunately, another trip to rehab helped Ryan, and it was where he met Christa.  Oscar has since been clean for just over two years.  Today, the two of them work to educate others and raise awareness of mental health and addictions, and both are actually in school to become official addiction counsellors.

The TTYL event came to an end with some further discussion about peer support and talking about what everyone learned over the course of the day.  The end goal for organizers was sending kids back home with a more open mind about mental health and addictions, and time will tell if the students put the day’s talking points into action.

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