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30 Jan, Monday
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Montreal Families

Teen fighting depression helps others in need

Usually when people pop in to a hospital, they bring a treat or a small gift for the patient they’re visiting. When Simone Aslan dropped into the psychiatric ward of the Montreal Children’s Hospital this summer, she wheeled in several shopping-cart loads of socks, underwear, blankets, toiletries, art supplies and games — not for anyone in particular, but for everyone.

The 17-year-old, who is starting at Dawson College this fall, credits the hospital staff with putting her on the road to recovery following a bout of depression so severe it left her suicidal.

She had been feeling up and down, but mostly down, through most of Grade 10. One day in the fall of Grade 11 she told her mom how badly she was really feeling, that she’d been thinking about self-harm, and that she needed to go to hospital.

Aslan spent a week as an inpatient, followed by more treatment once she was discharged. That week in hospital was the beginning; both to put her back on the road to mental well being, and for her to notice some patients (who didn’t have family or friends) arrived without basic supplies like a clean pair of socks. The hospital could provide great medical care but couldn’t supply these basic necessities.

Once she was discharged and back at school at The Study, she hit on the idea of raising money to help the other patients. The idea grew out of an open-ended assignment that she realized she could turn into a project that actually would help people. She met with hospital staff to find out what sorts of things they thought would be useful, started a website, the Bare Necessities Initiative, and set out to raise $5,000.

“I’m somebody who doesn’t like to sit still. I constantly need a goal or a project. This makes me feel like I do have a purpose in life,” Aslan said, and credits it with giving her a focus. She says one of the biggest benefits isn’t even the money she’s raised and the things she’s been able to buy with it: it’s that she’s been able to raise awareness about depression and mental illness.

It was hard for her to acknowledge her depression at first, she says. “I wondered, am I exaggerating? Am I being dramatic? It was difficult to know whether my feelings were valid.” As she started talking about it on the website and later in person, many other people opened up about their own experiences or those of their family and friends. “People respect my story; it helps people to talk about it now that I’m talking about it.”

Aslan surpassed her goal, collecting more than $7,000. She spent the first $5,000 to buy 200 deodorant sticks, 160 bars of soap, 250 toothbrushes, 250 tubes of toothpaste, sanitary pads, tampons, hairbrushes, 150 to 200 pairs of underwear, 250 pairs of socks, 200 blankets, crayons, 10 sketchbooks, 27 packs of cards, games of Uno and Battleship, and more. She bought in bulk, she chased suppliers and manufacturers to get a better deal (she’s particularly proud of the sweatpants she sourced at $7 a pair). The rest of the money is on hold. She’s planning to check in with the hospital later this fall to find out which items were most in demand and then spend the rest of the money on those.

Marie-France Haineault, child-life co-ordinator at the Children’s, helped guide Aslan in choosing the things that would be most useful in the ward. “The most useful thing, and the heart of her project, is to have everyone get basic items,” Haineault said. “Everything that brings comfort, first physically, then emotionally.”

Aslan’s mom, Ofra Aslan, says the family supported her daughter’s efforts, but that the idea and the work of setting up meetings with hospital staff, planning and shopping were all Simone’s. “I think it touched people, the fact that she’s out there saying, ‘this is what I have.’ “People don’t talk about it enough. I’m definitely proud of her, I think she’s amazing, actually!”

Simone Aslan’s not sure about the future of the website and her initiative; she set it up as a short-term project but, given the positive response she’s had, she might try to find a way to keep it going. barenecessitiesinitiative.com

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