Being Queer, Young, and Mentally Ill in Rural Alberta

I sat down to chat with two youth who live and go to school in a rural community in southern Alberta. In a nearly empty coffee shop, we ate cinnamon buns and discussed their history with mental illness and their current experiences working with a volunteering program called the Youth DO Crew. These youth, we’ll call them Andy and Taylor, were eager to share their stories of mental illness, the supports that they have or have not received, and their perseverance to quite literally stay alive through trauma, bullying, and being queer in a rural community. Their willingness to share their stories originated from the knowledge that other youth might read this blog post and know that they are not alone in their rural communities.

My name is Kaitlynn Weaver and I began working as the Youth DO Crew Coordinator in May 2019. This program provides youth with leadership and volunteering opportunities in rural southern Alberta. The projects that we have worked on are chosen by youth, for youth. For instance, in one area, we started an official Youth Advisory Council so youth can participate in community discussions that impact young people. In other communities, we have organized a variety of recreational events for youth. With over 50 youth registered, the DO Crew has made an undeniable positive impact in rural southern Alberta.

Andy and Taylor have played a vital role in the development and success of the DO Crew. As natural leaders, they excitedly participate in discussions and volunteering projects, while motivating others to do the same. They provide important feedback on the activities that we participate in and actively seek out other volunteering initiatives. Each of them has volunteered over 30 hours to their community. They were excited to participate in this interview to share their stories of mental illness in order to shed new light on a historically overlooked issue: rural youth’s experiences with mental illness.

Two Histories of Mental Illness and Wellness:

After we finished our snacks and chatted about their day at school, Andy started explaining his experiences with mental illness and childhood trauma, which, as he stated, made him “grow up really fast.” Andy has experienced a variety of mental illnesses from childhood trauma including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Panic Disorder, Depression, and Anxiety – among others. He has also dropped out of school and re-registered a few times. After asking how he coped, Andy explained that “medication and therapy has helped a lot, but mostly it’s just been me working on my mental health and I feel very content. I feel like I’m doing the best I’ve ever done. I feel like I’ve found a way to make life a lot more positive instead of being stuck in a place where that’s all I am is my mental illness.”

A stark contrast from Andy, Taylor explained that she “was not supposed to have mental illness because life was seemingly fine.” Taylor grew up in a middle-class family and did not experience the same traumas that Andy had. The notion that individuals must experience a form of trauma to experience mental illness is a common myth shared among many young people and adults. However, recent scientific discoveries have indicated that “many mental disorders are caused by a combination of biological, environmental, psychological, and genetic factors… [A] growing body of research has found that certain genes and gene variations are associated with mental disorders” (National Institute of Mental Health, 2020).

Taylor explained that she was suicidal in middle school after being bullied in a Catholic School. After dropping out, Taylor experienced panic attacks and would find it difficult to get out of bed.  Eventually, Taylor dropped out of school and started completing her classes online in the comfort of her own home. Although she no longer had to deal with bullies, she experienced extreme loneliness. In order to make friends, she turned to the internet. Both Andy and Taylor explained the usefulness of online forums in order to learn about queer identities in a small, rural community where no one would discuss LGBTQ2S+ issues or identities. If these topics were discussed, youth and adults would ostracize and bully those who identified as queer. Although a haven for knowledge and connection, both Andy and Taylor explained the potential dangers of online communities. For instance, they explained that older youth (17+) would persuade them to participate in self-harm. “I wouldn’t have even known what cutting was if it weren’t for them,” Taylor said.

“Mental health system needs desperate renovations”

One day when Taylor was at home alone, she felt uneasy, anxious, and in a panic. Believing that she would attempt suicide if she sat by herself any longer, Taylor called a crisis line who immediately called the police. “They took their sweet time getting there. I know they’re coming from [the larger city near this community], but they could have gotten there faster. It took an hour. I could have died.” This is one of the many problems with mental health services in rural communities. Response times for dispatchers are incredibly long since they are outside of larger centres. Other concerns for rural youth and mental health include stigmatizing opinions and ignorance from family, friends, and community members.

Both Andy and Taylor agreed that the “mental health system needs desperate renovations” for all Albertans but rural communities, in particular. Rural communities are far less likely to have mental health supports in and outside of schools. According to the Northern Exposures, physical and mental health services in rural or remote communities suffer from “geographic isolation and distance to services; difficulties retaining health care professionals; and a lack of evidence-based research on health care service and delivery” (Northern Exposures, 2020). “In a big city like Toronto, you could find specialists. You could find your community. It’s so hard to find people that are like me in this small town”, Andy said. “Although, now that I think about it, [my queer identity] and my mental illnesses make me more interesting than anyone else in the school”, he added with a sly smile. Not only do rural communities lack health services, a lot of them lack services for youth and, specifically, queer youth. This leads to a negative perception about young people, while fueling ignorance and biases about queer people. Taylor explained, “I totally get how, if you don’t know something, if you don’t understand something, one of your first reactions is to hate it or be upset at it.” She later mentioned that sharing one’s knowledge about or experiences with mental illness or their queerness is one of the best ways to end stigma.

Andy and Taylor are incredibly courageous young people. Like many young people, they are the first in their families to ask for help for their mental illness. “My dad has diagnosed anxiety and he takes pills for it, but it was only after I started admitting that he would admit to a stranger that he had anxiety.” Similarly, Taylor’s mother has recently started admitting that she struggles with anxiety. By discussing their experiences with their families, both Taylor and Andy are proving to others that it’s okay to ask for help.

“It was really good for my mental health to put things into perspective”

After a long conversation exploring their history with mental illness and living in a rural community in southern Alberta, we started discussing their experiences with the Youth DO Crew, specifically in relation to their mental health. Taylor began by explaining her history with volunteering. While she was home-schooled, she volunteered with the local Parent Link Centre in her community to play with babies and toddlers. “Being around babies is one part of it that I really enjoyed. I don’t want a kid for myself, but I enjoy holding them and getting to pass them off to their parents when they start screaming… But the babies brought some joy and I feel good helping people. Even when we were picking up trash with the DO Crew, it felt like I was making a difference. I feel like one of the biggest things is like working on something other than yourself. You’re focusing on others. In the beginning of the DO Crew, we focused on ourselves, but, like you said, as time went on, we started focusing on what would be good for other people in the community and I think that’s good for everyone. It was really good for my mental health to put things into perspective. Like oh, I’m not the centre of the universe.”

Andy agreed that volunteering has helped change his perspective while adding that working with the DO Crew has allowed him to work on his teamwork skills. “The DO Crew has got me to work on conflict resolution. It’s like putting yourself in a situation that’s challenging but you still do it”. Andy suggested that motivating himself to do things that he maybe wouldn’t normally do, is good for his mental health.

Finally, both Andy and Taylor agreed that the DO Crew has been helpful because they have an adult mentor that they can relate to. “I don’t like the leadership class I’m in. I just don’t connect with the teacher and didn’t like what we were doing. But here, I feel like it’s the same, we’re learning the same things, but you’re nicer and I feel like I can trust you.”

Both Andy and Taylor believe that it is important to share their experiences with mental illness with others to let them know that they are not alone. These young people are incredibly courageous and kind. It’s been a pleasure getting to know them through the DO Crew and I am confident that they will continue to create positive and impactful change in their communities. To end this post, I would like to share a tumblr post that they recalled during the interview that reminded them of their friendship: “We are thousands of years old and we have hung out in every subsequent lifetime. We are twin flames.”

References:

National Institute of Mental Health (2020). Looking at My Genes: What Can They Tell Me About My Mental Health? Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/looking-at-my-genes/index.shtml

Northern Exposures. (n.d). Searching for Best Practices in Rural and Remote Care. Retrieved from http://www.ohtn.on.ca/northern-exposures/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2016/01/Northern-Backgrounder.pdf

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