Joshua Ramon and Stephanie Barrantes, both grade 12 students, have suffered from mental health issues. Now, they speak about mental health to kids in elementary as part of a project called Here 4 Peers. (JONATHAN HAYWARD / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

B.C. high school students who suffered in silence now helping others

Joshua Ramon and Stephanie Barrantes speak about mental health to kids in elementary school

At his lowest point in Grade 10, Joshua Ramos would walk the streets of his neighbourhood at midnight wearing headphones and wish for the music to drown out the dark thoughts that followed him everywhere.

At school, Ramos could barely make the effort to talk to anyone. Besides, he didn’t have the words to describe the hopelessness that kept him silent.

“As soon as school was over I’d go home as fast as possible, go to my room and go to sleep,” Ramos said, recalling the sinking feeling for which he had no name.

“I felt it was really draining to talk to other people and just be happy all the time,” he said of increasingly isolating himself from parents, friends and teachers.

He’d banish thoughts of speaking to a counsellor at David Thompson Secondary School by telling himself he’d just be wasting someone’s time, that his experience was “not really that serious.”

Stephanie Barrantes, now also in Grade 12 at the same school, began fighting the demons in her mind when she was in Grade 8 by telling herself she was having a bad day — nearly every day.

“I would be walking to school and I would feel really overwhelmed and I would start crying so I wouldn’t even go to school. When I was at school I would act as if my friends did something wrong but it was really me being scared. I was just mad at them and I didn’t know why,” she said.

Like Ramos, Barrantes was too afraid to talk about what they both would learn is called depression.

They also suffered from anxiety, and Barrantes had panic attacks, too.

Ramos finally opened up to a friend when the midnight walks became so routine that he knew something wasn’t right. Barrantes confided to her mother after shrugging off questions and spoke to a school counsellor before seeking counselling outside of school.

Ramos and Barrantes now speak about mental health to Grade 7 students at elementary schools near their own school as part of a pilot project called Here 4 Peers, with training provided by a Vancouver Police Department facilitator.

Ashley Currie, a former youth worker, said she has trained about 70 students at three high schools in public speaking about depression, suicide and related topics.

The plan for the project, based on information from the Canadian Mental Health Association, is to expand training to every high school in the city over five years.

“A huge piece is that a lot of this depends on a really strong and dedicated adult mentor at the school,” Currie said of the program funded by the Vancouver Police Foundation.

A school counsellor who Barrantes turned to for help takes on that task at David Thompson.

Barrantes said the training has helped her shed the shame of her depression.

“When people come to me and tell me, ‘I don’t know what’s happening,’ I say, ‘It’s OK, I’ve had it, too. I understand you.’ “

Last week, she and Ramos also spoke at a youth-led mental health conference that attracted 250 students and educators from 18 schools in Vancouver.

Related: RCMP, teachers take action after spike in bullying at B.C. high school

Three other gatherings, as part of a BC Children’s Hospital initiative called Building Our Minds, have been held across the province, with funding from the Canucks for Kids Fund. A fifth conference was scheduled for Monday in Sechelt.

Fardous Hosseiny, national director of research and public policy at the Canadian Mental Health Association, said a national plan requiring all students to learn about mental health is needed to remove the stigma around issues such as depression, which is so prevalent among youth.

“Why don’t we have education programs in schools to teach people about their emotions, their feelings, to understand what mental health is?”

He said that while some provinces provide limited mental-health education, they need to develop mandatory courses.

In British Columbia, mental health became a component of the physical and health education curriculum last year, but only for kindergarten to Grade 9 students.

The Education Ministry said the program will be expanded to Grades 10 to 12 starting next year.

Treatment wait times for children dealing with mental-health issues are longer than for adults, Hosseiny said, adding kids often reach a crisis point by the time they’re assessed, with suicide a particular risk for those suffering in silence.

Related: EDITORIAL: Fight bullying every day

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press

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