Psychosis rocks schools

At 16, Mike Young felt like he was always being watched and followed. He could feel people’s stares boring into him as he walked down the hall.

At 16, Mike Young felt like he was always being watched and followed.

He could feel people’s stares boring into him as he walked down the hall. And he was sure he could hear them talking about him.

He didn’t realize at the time that he had clinical depression. Nor did he know that his depression was triggering a psychotic episode.

He started missing classes. He stopped calling friends.

It was only four years later that a friend told him he thought something was wrong.

“I wouldn’t have gotten help if it wasn’t for him,” said Young.

Today, Young is 28. He’s been off antidepressants for three and a half years.

He has long dark hair and a beard. Tattoos of flames and guitars crawl up his arms. He plays bass for a Vancouver rock band, the Matinee.

He and his band are part of an education program, ReachOut, which visited Whitehorse this week to speak about psychosis.

It was, as school assemblies go, unusually lively, with the band playing songs intermittently through the presentation.

It’s mental health week. The group was brought to the Yukon, at a cost of $9,000, because psychosis largely afflicts young people between the ages of 15 and 25. Young men are especially at risk.

It’s believed that three per cent of the population experiences psychosis at some point. To put that in perspective, that would mean psychosis affects six times as many people as type-1 diabetes.

The longer it is left untreated, the more damage it does.

Psychosis is a break from reality. Within a psychotic episode, you may hear voices. Or see things that aren’t really there.

In extreme cases, you may believe bugs are crawling under your skin, or lightening is coursing through your body.

It will feel absolutely real. You will often lack the critical distance to understand these are hallucinations.

Delusions are common, such as Young’s unshakable belief that he was under surveillance.

Psychosis is not a disease. It is a symptom of mental illness, particularly schizophrenia.

Severe depression and bipolar disorder may also induce psychosis.

For the genetically predisposed — those for whom it may run in the family — psychosis may be triggered by stress, drug use, or even lack of sleep or a fever.

Stress is another trigger. And there’s no shortage of that in schools.

When Young began to experience his psychotic episodes, he stayed away from school and spent most of his time in the library.

“It was obvious something was going on,” said bandmate Matt Layzell. “But we didn’t know what this meant.”

Family and friends are usually the first to notice psychotic symptoms. They’re in the best position to help.

Symptoms may encroach slowly. Someone in the grips of psychosis may be subject to violent mood swings, and laugh or cry at inappropriate times.

They may stop attending to hygiene. Such details are hard to keep track of amidst a psychotic episode.

They may speak in a confused, disorganized manner, or break off mid-sentence.

Paranoid delusions are common.

The psychotic, contrary to popular belief, are rarely violent. They’re not psychopaths. Most often, like Young, they withdraw completely from social situations.

Street drugs exacerbate the problem.

“Has anyone heard of meth?” asked Barbara Adler, a poet who is part of ReachOut.

Arms shot up in the air.

“Does anyone know it can trigger psychosis?”

Arms fell back down.

Alcohol, marijuana, LSD, cocaine and other drugs could also set off someone prone to psychotic episodes.

Giving these drugs to such a person is like giving peanut butter to a friend with a peanut allergy, said Adler.

There’s a misconception that marijuana and magic mushrooms are less dangerous than other drugs because they are not synthetically produced.

It’s not true, said Tracy Dudley, another member of the group.

Someone experiencing psychosis should seek help.

Talk to an adult you trust, said Marie Fast, clinical manager of the Yukon’s mental health services.

A school counsellor is a good place to start. So is a doctor.

Fast knows of about 15 young Yukoners who suffer from psychosis.

A group of them began to meet together to share their experiences in August.

Several decades ago, someone with psychosis was believed to no longer be capable of having a functional, independent life.

Now, with the help of family support, therapy and sometimes prescription drugs, “most people with psychosis go on to live really happy, happy lives,” said Dudley.

Ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away, said Young.

He tried.

After graduating from high school, his symptoms disappeared.

But they came back later, when he was touring Europe with a metal band.

A bandmate, who suffered from bipolar disorder, was the person who told him he thought something was wrong.

Family and friends of Yukoners who may suffer from psychosis can help by doing the same.

It’s important, said Dudley, to realize sometimes “they’re not just being a teenager.”

Anyone with symptoms of psychosis should call Yukon’s mental health services at 667-8346, or toll-free at 1-800-661-0408, local 8346.

For more information on psychosis, visit