PHOTO | TAMIKA ROSE, ELEVATED GROUNDS
Jullian Namakula, left, and Renita Comrie's performance fights the stigma of mental illness.
Jerome is a young man with post-traumatic stress disorder who attempts to cope by self-medicating with marijuana. Diana is suffering from depression and has low self-esteem. And Melanie is a youth caregiver whose mother has schizophrenia.
These are a few of the characters in performances by Elevated Grounds, an organization that uses song, dance, drama, music and spoken word to educate and bust the stigma surrounding mental health.
"We are hoping to show the stresses and issues that affect mental health are present in the everyday life of young people and the important thing is to become aware of them and seek help," said Leyland Gudge, Elevated Grounds' program manager, mentor and elder.
The statistics illustrate the enormity and importance of combatting mental health, said Gudge.
In Ontario, the equivalent of three busloads of youth will kill themselves this year; the onset of most mental health issues occurs between the ages of 12 and 25; of those children and youth with mental health problems, 83 per cent receive no professional help.
"We try to stress the need for young people to see the issue of mental health as an integral part of their overall health and wellness," said Gudge. "In the same way they take care of their hair and muscles, we've got to have them take more responsibility and care of the mind," said Gudge.
Elevated Grounds was born out of tragedy after a youth took his own life in East Scarborough, said Nyahsa Ysrayl, founder and director.
"We no longer wanted to be part of perpetuating the silence around an issue plaguing the community of youth."
Along with offering after-school workshops, performances are followed by facilitated "talk back" sessions to encourage dialogue.
Currently made up of seven performers between the ages of 18 and 26, their connection to mental health varies.
"Some of them are mental illness survivors, some are caregivers to a family member living with a mental disorder and others are advocates," said Ysrayl.
Renita Comrie, 22, contributes to Elevated Grounds as an actor and singer. Through her work as a personal support worker, she deals with clients that have Alzheimer's, dementia and other mental health issues. On a personal level, she has family members who have overcome mental health issues ranging from schizophrenia to clinical depression.
"We definitely have to provide a message of hope to those who see our performances," said Comrie. "It provides a space for them to seek help if they need it as opposed to being very afraid of judgment. It brings a lot more awareness, understanding and acceptance."
Ysrayl has seen firsthand the effectiveness of the group's peer-mentoring approach.
"After one presentation, we had three or four students run up to the stage and start asking about where they can seek help. . . . They acknowledged the fact that they no longer had to be ashamed about what it was they were experiencing."
She also sees the impact on one of their current performers who is living with a mental health condition.
"He's starting to understand that his mental health condition doesn't define him. It's just a part of who he is and he's learning to cope more effectively and in a more healthy way."
Seeking help means talking to social workers at school, child and youth workers, your principal, guidance counsellor and peers, said Gudge.
"This is where advocacy plays a role in terms of a call for youth-friendly services and programs for young people to be able to access at the community level as opposed to having the services situated in hospitals and institutional settings. And to have them be culturally sensitive because culture and religion play a major role in how we deal with it. The spiritual aspect is very important."
Some strategies to achieve positive mental health include stress management, a loving support system, quiet time for yourself, healthy eating, adequate sleep and exercise.