Eleni Giannakas isn’t a particularly outspoken, extroverted teenager. But lately, the 17-year-old has become very verbal about a condition she knows all too well – depression. For more than four years, she felt tired, sad and anxious. Some of her friends were having similar feelings, and after talking to them and doing some research on the Internet, she realized she might be suffering from depression. But it took another two years for her to work up the courage to tell her parents how she was feeling. “I was afraid they would tell me it was nothing, that they wouldn’t accept me,” she said.
Eleni’s mother, Gail Giannakas, said she saw changes in her daughter’s behaviour and mood but thought she was dealing with typical teenage problems. But one particular outburst made her realize her daughter was going through something much more serious. “She was crying and screaming, and lost all sense of where she was,” Giannakas said. Eleni also rolled up her sleeves, revealing scars on her arms left behind from cutting, and told her parents she had come up with a plan to commit suicide.
Soon after, Eleni was hospitalized and was officially diagnosed with depression last January. “She has an inner strength…something that pushed her to reach out,” Giannakas said. Eleni, who goes to Laurier Macdonald High School in St. Leonard, spoke to her fellow students about her condition in January as part of Let’s Talk Day, a Bell charitable program dedicated to mental health. She said it was initially difficult because she was worried they were not going to be accepting of her or they would think that she was lying. “But I knew it was going to be okay once I was actually up there in front of them and it was important they hear what I had to say.”
Despina Vassiliou, English Montreal School Board (EMSB) psychologist and coordinator of the board’s Mental Health Resource Centre, says it takes a certain level of bravery to speak about mental illness, and Eleni’s actions can make a difference. “It is helpful for others to hear ‘I can do something about it, I’m not alone,’” she said.
Eleni said that since she has opened up about her condition, her peers are supportive and attentive, often asking how she’s feeling and if she needs anything. She went from seeing an independent psychiatrist, to being treated at the Montreal Children’s Hospital and is now in and out of the Douglas Mental Health University Institute for checkups or stints as an inpatient. Living with depression is an ongoing battle, she says, but it’s easier now that she has some tools to cope. For her mother, it was hard to accept that Eleni’s pain wasn’t something she could heal. “All you can do is guide (your children),” she said. “They have to do it on their own, and you stand by and support them. It’s not easy.”
Eleni has some suggestions for parents who may be concerned that their child’s anxiety and sadness may be more than just stereotypical angst. She says look for signs of a loss of appetite or overeating, a lack of sleep or oversleeping, and above all, feeling like they want to hurt themselves. Eleni says she won’t stop talking about her depression until people realize they have nothing to be embarrassed about. “I want to share my experience so people know they are not alone and they shouldn’t feel ashamed.”
As the old African proverb goes, it takes a village to raise a child. But as technology changes the way we relate to each other, it’s not as easy as it once was to connect with and feel connected to others. Helping students create and nurture connections with important people in their lives is the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week at the EMSB. The board’s Mental Health Resource Centre, which oversees the events from May 4 to 8, consists of psychologists, guidance counsellors and behaviour specialists who offer support and services that address mental health issues in students.
The activities during Mental Health Awareness Week will vary depending on the school. Through school-wide assemblies, classroom activities, and planned events, students will learn techniques to achieve balance and feel capable of overcoming challenges in their lives.
For more information, visit emsb.qc.ca