"They're good at fixing broken bones, not broken minds:" One teen's struggle to find help for anxiety

Ottawa teen Leo DeVries has lived with anxiety since he was a toddler. He finally got diagnosed at age 10, but it took two more years to find the help he needed. He says the healthcare system needs to do better by kids like him.
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Leo DeVries poses with his mom, Charlotte Masemann. The Ottawa teen has lived with anxiety since he was a toddler. He finally got diagnosed at age 10, but it took two more years to find the help he needed.

Sometimes, Leo DeVries would simply be walking down the street when the anxiety would hit. 

"It can just pop on and off. I can't really control it to be honest, like my heart starts to beat and beat and beat...and I can't breathe,' the 15-year-old Ottawa teen tells Dr. Brian Goldman, host of White Coat, Black Art.

Leo is far from alone. He's among a growing number of teenagers who suffer from an anxiety disorder. According to a recent survey of Ontario students from Grades 7 to 12, one in three reported having moderate to severe mental health distress. The level of anxiety in this age group has gone up by 30 percent in two years.

In Leo's case, the symptoms came even earlier. He recalls that as a two-year-old in daycare, he would go to a corner to hide under a blanket most days. 

His mother, Charlotte Masemann, says when Leo reached grade 5, things  became "acute" after he switched schools. Panic attacks that lasted anywhere from a couple of seconds to an hour were impacting his ability to go to school and to sleep. 

"He would get angry and punch things and yell and threaten us." 

Then, she says, he began to talk about wanting to kill himself. 

"He said,'I want to die, I want to kill myself, I don't want to do this anymore,'" Charlotte says. 

(Leo) said,'I want to die, I want to kill myself, I don't want to do this anymore.'- Charlotte Masemann , explaining why she took her son to the ER when he was showing signs of anxiety. 

More than once, they went to the  emergency department when she was overwhelmed and didn't know how to help her son.  

Even when she told staff that Leo was talking about suicide, little could be done to help him. 

"If the child has not actually physically hurt  themselves or if the child has not actually written down a plan of how they'll kill themselves, that's not an action item on anyone's agenda in a hospital," the frustrated mom says. 

One ER resident who saw them asked Charlotte about her parenting style and suggested that "time-outs" or consequences might help. 

"I was thinking, 'You have got to be kidding me.'"

They left the hospital in frustration. 

"We were going back to the car...and Leo said to me, I think they're very good at fixing broken bones in that hospital but they're not good at fixing broken minds." 

I think they're very good at fixing broken bones in that hospital but they're not good at fixing broken minds.- Leo DeVries, at age 10, after visiting the ER for his anxiety. 

Their family doctor advocated on their behalf, but it was a struggle to find consistent care that would be covered by the province's health plan.

Leo was eventually diagnosed at age 10 with social anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder and depression. 

Leo says the diagnosis brought some relief. 

"I know what I have and what it entails...and I'm not just having these random emotions," he says. 

But it took two more years until their family doctor found a local pediatrician who also specialized in psychiatry. 

The doctor prescribed medication to help Leo control his anxiety. He also sees a therapist that the family pays for out-of-pocket every two weeks. 

While he's learned to accept his condition, he wishes others would be more open-minded towards kids with anxiety. 

"We're not just complaining. We need more things to help us and none of those things are telling us to suck it up and keep going or, 'oh, you are just a whiny little brat.' Those are not helpful." 

Years of living with anxiety have left the teen with some insight into how the healthcare system could better help kids like him. 

"If there were more professionals to help and more mental health resources in general, it would have taken me less than two years (to get help). Because if I had broken a bone and I needed physical therapy, it would not have taken this long."

'If I had broken a bone and I needed physical therapy, it would not have taken this long (to get treatment)" - 15-year-old Leo De Vries on his two-year wait to get treatment after he was diagnosed. with anxiety at age 10. 

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