Former Cape Breton student says school guidance counsellor saved his life

A mental health advocate who attempted suicide when he was a teen growing up in Sydney, N.S., said people should "protest in the streets" if the Cape Breton Victoria Regional School Board goes ahead with proposed cuts to some of its guidance counsellor and school psychologist positions.

"It would be a grievous mistake if the school board were to withdraw or otherwise limit mental health services to students," said Mark Henick, whose TED Talk, Why we choose suicide, has been viewed almost 3.6 million times.

He credits his former school guidance counsellor with saving his life.

Henick spoke this week in the wake of three junior high students dying by suicide in the Sydney area.

"The toll and the impact that has on the families, friends, communities of the people who knew and loved these young people, it's staggering," said Henick.

'Ruthless bullying'

Henick started experiencing symptoms of what he now knows was depression in elementary school.

"When you're already an at-risk youth, when you're already vulnerable, it seems to attract people who want to attack that," he said. "So I experienced ruthless bullying throughout my junior high school career."

By the time he reached his mid-teens, Henick had attempted suicide multiple times.

On one occasion, he said he met with the guidance counsellor and during the meeting, he tried to kill himself. The guidance counsellor took action and physically saved his life.

On Thursday, Justice Minister Mark Furey promised a new anti-cyberbullying law will be introduced this fall when Province House resumes sitting.

The government will also be sending youth mental health expert Dr. Stan Kutcher to Cape Breton to talk with families, young people, schools and health providers about what's needed to address mental health concerns.

A hard road, but worth it

If he could go back in time and talk to his teen self, Henick said he would try to convince himself that depression and mental illnesses lie.

"They tell you that you're worthless. They tell you that it's always going to be this way. That you'll never recover. That nobody cares about you. Those are lies," said Henick.

He said young people should know that recovery from most mental health problems and illnesses is not only possible, it's expected when people get the help that they need.

"Because you feel this way today it doesn't mean that you are always going to feel this way," said Henick.

"It's gonna be a hard road, you have to really claw your way up the mountain of recovery sometimes, but it's worth it when you get to the top."

Henick attributes his own recovery to taking charge of his life and his vision for what he wanted that life to be.

"When I was able to decide that I wasn't going to be silenced, that I wanted to speak up about my struggles and really ask for and demand the help that I needed rather than wait for the system to change ... when I found that passion and that purpose, that's really what's driven my recovery all these years later."

What can parents do?

Henick said parents need to take the risk of suicide seriously and to never discount it as just a phase.

He said parents should talk to their kids, be open and let the kids know they're a safe person they can speak with.

"Some of the things that they tell you are going to be uncomfortable. They're going to be scary sometimes as well. But validate that. Thank them for sharing these really difficult things with you," he said.

"Don't assume that they know that you love them."

If you are in distress or considering suicide, there are places to turn for support. Nova Scotia's Mental Health Mobile Crisis Team can be reached at (902) 429-8167 or Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868. The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention also has information about where to find help.