Richmond B.C. teen mental health advocate says sports and modelling helped her recover
Richmond teen Amaya Cruz, who made headlines for walking in New York Fashion Week in February, is now being honoured as a model both on and off the runway.
On Saturday, 14-year-old Cruz received the City of Richmond's U-ROC Outstanding Youth Award Saturday evening for her advocacy around youth experiencing mental health challenges like she does.
The teen, who started modelling in 2020 after beginning treatment for anxiety and severe clinical depression, is now a peer mentor to other teens facing mental health challenges at nonprofit Touchstone Family Association in Richmond.
"I still have my struggles… it's not going to go away right away," Cruz told CBC News on Sunday, which was National Child and Youth Mental Health Day in Canada. "But I'm doing better than where I was a couple of years ago, and I'm proud of that."
The award recognized 57 Richmond youth who have overcome barriers to their own success and demonstrated exceptional qualities that make Richmond a better place.
Cruz had her first panic attack when she was eight, after she suffered two concussions from competitive cheerleading which caused her to miss school. At the time, she didn't know what the panic attack was, but the episodes intensified.
"I would get worried, and it would be fine, but then it just kept getting worse and worse," Cruz recalls.
Children and youth who experience concussions are 40 per cent more likely to develop mental health challenges than those who receive orthopaedic surgeries, a 2022 study from researchers at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa found.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Cruz also developed what she and her mental health team now know was severe clinical depression.
"The normal things, I just didn't have energy to do, like showering and brushing my teeth," she said.
The usually athletic and outgoing teen struggled to get out of bed some days, and didn't feel motivated to spend time with her family or go outside. Her baseball, basketball and volleyball practices were cancelled due to the pandemic.
"She just shut down," Cruz's mother Pamela Abarca told CBC News.
'Things will get better'
Abarca helped her daughter get a referral to the Mood and Anxiety Disorders clinic at BC Children's Hospital, where Cruz began seeing psychiatrist Dr. Tamara Salih in 2020.
Salih says the clinic's wait list has ballooned nearly three-fold since the onset of the pandemic.
"A lot of children and youth lost their structure, their access to sports and physical activity, social support and community supports and were quite isolated at home," said Salih, who added more community mental health supports, like Foundry centres, are needed for youth
In 2021, a report by B.C.'s representative for children and youth found that the province already lacked adequate community-based mental health supports for young people before the pandemic.
As a result, the number of youth admitted to hospital against their will due to mental illness had risen "alarmingly" to 2,545 in 2017/18, up 162 per cent compared to a decade before.
Salih says Cruz is special because of her courage to ask for help and to do what's in her power to feel better. Cruz is working on sharing her feelings with others, journaling and several mindfulness practices that help ground her.
"Amaya's journey shows that with patience, with hard work on yourself and trusting the people around you, things will get better," said Salih.
Salih encourages parents to monitor changes in their children's personality and, as a start, seek out resources online if they believe their child is suffering.
Cruz said returning to sports, like softball, has been an important outlet to manage her anxiety. She also finds support from her team and coaches. She said pursuing modelling has also helped show her she was capable of achieving her dreams.
Now, she says she wants to break the stigma around asking for help so other youth facing mental health challenges can address their needs.
"If I'm around their age, they'll understand it's not just them who struggles," Cruz said. "I want people to know there is a light at the end of the tunnel."