Youth battle effects and stigma of OCD, anxiety and depression.
Photo: Andrea Vukobrat, a youth peer support worker at BC Children’s Hospital’s Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre.
by DOUG WARD
When she was 10, Lily became consumed with fear of germs and contagion. Her hands cracked and bled because of incessant washing. In the following two years, Lily’s daily life was dominated by recurrent and irrational thoughts, which led to strange ritualistic behaviour.
Lily worried about her family’s safety. Walking out the door for school was an ordeal. “Every day I would say goodbye to my parents six or seven times before I left,” recalls Lily. “I wondered if it was the last time I would see them.” She could no longer participate in extracurricular activities and some days came home hysterical.
By the time Lily was 12, her parents feared they were losing her. “She was a changed child, trying to protect herself from a power inside her that she could not shake off, something that kept getting stronger by the day no matter what she did,” says her mother, Dianne. “It was like a goblin invasion; it took over every crack and cranny of our house and our lives.”
Physicians in her hometown of Whistler referred the 12-year-old girl to BC Children’s Hospital, where mental health specialists quickly produced a diagnosis: Lily had obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Lily’s father Greg, says it was distressing to watch OCD take his beloved daughter prisoner.
“This is not just about overdoing hand washing,” he says. “Whether it be an inability to be driven in a vehicle, a fear of going out the door, an inability to sit in a chair at school, piles of laundry every day, the life of the child with OCD is completely taken over by the rituals and fears and the parents become its prisoner as well.”
Fortunately for Lily and her family, BC Children’s Hospital is home to Canada’s first pediatric OCD clinic, headed by Dr. Evelyn Stewart. The Harvard-trained psychiatrist came to BC Children’s Hospital in 2010 convinced that OCD is very treatable.
“OCD is one of those disorders where we can really make life-changing impacts in a relatively short period of time,” she says.
Dr. Stewart persuaded BC Children’s Hospital, UBC and the health authority to create the Pediatric OCD Program in 2012. OCD is one of the most under-recognized pediatric mental disorders and requires a treatment model separate from the hospital’s anxiety programs, says Dr. Stewart.
“Kids with OCD are often what I call ‘gold-star’ kids. They are very warm-hearted, get straight A grades. They are aware that some of their thoughts and behaviours are unusual. They are ashamed of it and try to stop. But they are unable to stop on their own.”
The key to pediatric OCD treatment is cognitive behaviour therapy, which helps patients understand the thoughts that shape their compulsive behaviours. Using a strategy called exposure-and-response prevention, medical staff show kids with OCD how to do the opposite of what the disorder is telling them to do.
“If the OCD is telling you: ‘Don’t touch the door handle,’ you touch the door handle,” says Dr. Stewart. “We teach the brain that what has been happening with OCD doesn’t need to keep happening.”
Lily went through many rounds of cognitive behaviour therapy, gradually overcoming her fears. “They would say, ‘Touch the floor and don’t wash your hands for five minutes.’ For me, that was huge. Or, they would have me drop a gummy bear on the ground and then eat it. That was terrifying.”
Mom Dianne says Lily’s work with BC Children’s mental health specialists transformed her family’s life. “We say thank you to the doctors at Children’s, like no other thank you in our lives.”
Lily, now 15, made so much progress that in Grade 8 she was able to give a speech to her school about her battle with OCD.
“It was really hard for me to get up and tell my classmates and teachers that I have OCD and depression. It was a big thing because we live in a society where it is not okay to be different or mentally ill. Stigma is so prevalent.”
Andrea Vukobrat (featured in the article image), a youth peer support worker at BC Children’s Hospital’s Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre, knows first-hand about stigma attached to mental health. She battled with anxiety in high school and university – and now at BC Children’s, talks to youth from across BC who face similar mental health struggles.
“I am hearing that they want help but don’t want to be stigmatized. I tell them it’s okay that they feel this way. I was exactly like that. I actually thought I was evil.”
A turning point in her recovery came at the Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre, where she worked as a volunteer. She met Julie, a Parent in Residence (parent peer support worker) who works at the centre, and began sharing tales about her own dark history. “I didn’t feel judged or scared the way I had when I’d admitted tiny tidbits of my problems to family or friends. I felt … better.”
These days, Andrea is a FORCE Society for Kids’ Mental Health Youth in Residence who works at the centre. In this role, she tries to get kids to open up. “My role is to get them talking and to understand that there is a way to manage this and get to the other side.”
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