Friday, February 23, 2018

What if? What if?: Former Camosun student uses personal struggles to illustrate comic about anxiety for kids

January 8, 2018 by Fred Cameron, features writer

It’s incredibly quiet at Camosun College’s Lansdowne campus. For most students, it’s the beginning of the holiday break, and instructors are scrambling to grade mountains of papers. I find myself pacing back and forth outside By the Books. I’m a few minutes early for a 12 pm interview. I walk in and look around, stopping short of the counter. The barista asks if she can help. Nervously, I tell her that I am meeting someone here at noon, and I’ll return shortly. I can’t stand awkward silence, so I step outside.

I can’t help but wonder if I’ve got the day wrong, the time wrong, so I look through the series of messages I exchanged yesterday with my interview subject, former Camosun student Sam Duncan. What if I’m at the wrong campus? What if he’s at the caf instead of By the Books? My thoughts become clouded with anxiety and every question in my head turns into a “what if?” question, which is very appropriate, all things considered: Duncan recently illustrated a comic book about anxiety for kids where the main character, a frog, is constantly saying “what if?” instead of “ribbit.”

My heart rate increases as noon approaches, and I close my eyes and take a deep breath to clear my mind. I exhale and open my eyes, recognizing Duncan from photographs I’ve seen of him as he approaches. I can’t help but chuckle at my fictitious problems. Duncan looks just like any other Camosun student, with a big smile and a tasteful swagger in his step. We exchange introductions and a few jokes as we walk to an empty classroom, sit down, and start chatting.

HERE COMES FREDDIE

Two generations of former Camosun students—Duncan and his aunt, behavioural consultant Janis Joseph—teamed up to create and self-publish the aforementioned Freddie the Frog, a comic book designed to help children deal with stress and anxiety. The main character, Freddie, is a young frog with so many questions that he creates a world of stress and uncertainty for himself. Joseph, the owner of Fresh Steps Behavioural Consulting in Port Alberni, had already written the story but put it on hold for a year and a half; Duncan was taking the Comics and Graphic Novels program at Camosun last year when his aunt saw the comic he had produced in class. She knew the timing was right to bring Freddie to life.

“It’s about a little frog who wants to do all kinds of things, but his anxiety gets in the way,” says Duncan, who is 19 now. He attended Camosun in 2016 and 2017; he stayed for the duration of his program but didn’t get high enough grades in his writing classes to graduate (“I did pretty well in the art classes, but I guess I just didn’t understand the writing lessons enough,” he says). “He keeps thinking, ‘What if this happens, or what if that happens?’ He doesn’t do anything, because he is so focused on the ‘what if’s that he is afraid. Then, in the end, he learns that if he focuses on the bad things that might happen, he won’t enjoy anything. He learns to calm down by himself so he can do all of the things he wants to do.”

Former Camosun student Sam Duncan recently illustrated a comic book about anxiety (photo by Adam Marsh/Nexus).

Duncan and Joseph have united their skills and experience to work together for the first time on this project. But getting Duncan to talk about the project—or about himself—proves to be difficult when we meet up; it’s a classic conundrum of profiling an artist. Sometimes it’s easier to get other people to talk than it is to get the subject to open up, which certainly holds true here.

“It was great working with Sam,” says Joseph. “He and I have always had a great bond. With me doing what I do and Sam being on the [autism] spectrum, we got each other right away. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s at a very young age, and he suffered through anxiety. Life wasn’t easy for Sam. I saw him struggle, I saw him get through it, so it made sense for him to give life to Freddie the Frog, because part of him was Sam.”

There are no shortage of books written to help adults with their struggles with fear and anxiety; Duncan says the message of Freddie the Frog is relatable to both children and adults. Kids need to be empowered, just like the rest of us, and they need to know that they aren’t out there on their own. People everywhere struggle with anxiety, which can be combated with the right tools.

“The reason I wrote Freddie the Frog was that so many families were coming to me with behavioural challenges, and the more time I spent with the kids the clearer it became that their behaviour was stemming from their fear,” says Joseph. “It’s a matter of turning emotions into words. Instead, they are just exploding, and [as] the eruptions escalate it gets the point across. I wanted to make a book that shows this to kids, and not just to the parents. That’s why it’s a smaller comic book, made for little hands. We wanted children to be able to identify with it so they can open that conversation with their parents, and realize that, ‘Maybe I’m not angry all the time, I just have anxiety.’”

GROWIN’ UP

When he was younger, Duncan struggled during his time at Margaret Jenkins Elementary. He didn’t fit in, and, as a result, he had troubles both in class and on the playground.

Those struggles came to a head in the third grade when he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD.

“Sam got bullied quite a bit,” says Joseph. “It’s probably a time in his life that he would rather forget. Because he lacked in some of the social skills, he was picked on quite a bit in school. He didn’t pick up on academics easily. He was a big kid and a child of colour, so he stood out. He didn’t have a good time. It was difficult to make friends with other students. My sister would drive by the playground and the kids were all playing, and then there was Sam on his own. It turned into the community… at the swimming pool, for example, he loved to go swimming, but they would find him and he was a target. The kids just wouldn’t leave him alone.”

Sam had his mother in his corner along the way. She was able to see his troubles for what they were and pulled him out of public school in favour of Discovery School, a special-education school for children with learning disabilities. Duncan recalls that classes were much smaller, so individual attention was always available if he needed it. He also had social issues, which were addressed there. It was the ideal fit and, as his confidence grew, Duncan blossomed.

“Finding Discovery School was a real blessing for Sam,” says Joseph. “You find kids just like you, facing the same struggles. The teachers understand how to teach these kids, and Sam did very well in that environment. He was able to go all the way through to Grade 12, and he was ready to go to college when he graduated.”

A HELPING HAND

Asperger’s syndrome is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum; it’s generally characterized by significant difficulties with social interaction and repetitive, micro-focused patterns of behaviour. Joseph fondly recalls Duncan’s one-sided conversations as a child, where he would just talk and talk, regardless of who was listening. He didn’t understand the give and take that makes up a conversation; he would just export information, which helped people recognize he had Asperger’s.

Treatment for Asperger’s is aimed at improving communications skills through cognitive behavioural therapy. Duncan has come incredibly far in his development, but social interaction is something he continues to work on to this day.

“Asperger’s varies,” says Duncan. “It doesn’t affect me too much. It’s hard to explain. For me, it’s mostly social stuff. It’s a wide spectrum that affects people in different ways. I get a lot of anxiety meeting new people. Usually it isn’t too bad. It’s just there, I guess, so you deal with it.”

After Duncan graduated high school, he was ready to transition straight to college, and he enrolled in the Comics and Graphic Novels program at Camosun. He found himself in class with some incredibly talented artists under the tutelage of comic book writer and artist and Camosun instructor Ken Steacy. Duncan admits that he was nervous making the jump to college, especially coming from a program with a lighter workload. Steacy recalls that Duncan was a little bit shy as the program began, but because the students in the program are united by their love of comic books and art, he fit right in.

“He was an absolute delight to work with,” says Steacy. “He was always enthusiastic, energetic, very creative, engaged; he was the ideal student. You have to be an entrepreneur, which is difficult, especially because a lot of young people have confidence issues that can make it more of a challenge, but that is one of the learning outcomes, the entrepreneurship—understanding the marketplace and the constant changes. That’s one of the reasons I was so excited to hear about this book.”

One of the primary goals of any instructor is to give students the tools they need to make their way in their field of choice. Steacy recalls that Duncan was a little reticent at the beginning, but he watched Duncan blossom as the course progressed. The improvement was enormous—Duncan developed his skill set, which has allowed him to give voice to the things he cares deeply about.

“I’m delighted,” says Steacy, “because that’s exactly what we are hoping to achieve. That is the ultimate outcome from the program—we hope that the students build the skills to produce work of this calibre, to build a character that they can then find a market for. We encourage students to tell the stories that only they can tell.”

And Duncan, with his first published work, has done just that. In Freddie the Frog, Duncan has given life to a character who faces the same struggles he went through. Steacy says that there was virtually no sign that Duncan was struggling in class and says he applauds Duncan for being so forthcoming about his challenges.

“It’s a very human thing to feel isolated at various points in our lives, trying to cope with things and feeling unsure of who to turn to or who to talk to,” says Steacy. “It’s that generosity of spirit from people like Sam, saying, ‘I’ve experienced this, too; let’s see what we can do to help each other.’”

Joseph has dedicated her life to helping children with behavioural challenges and special needs. It all started in 1992 when she enrolled in General Arts at Camosun in pursuit of her English degree, which she would eventually complete at the University of Victoria. She saw a lack of support for these children and turned her passion and experience into Fresh Steps, which aims to help children and families cope with life’s challenges.

So often, says Joseph, children are misunderstood, largely because they lack the ability to communicate effectively. She experienced this first-hand, trying to help her sister and nephew overcome their own issues; children faced with stress disorders often lash out when fear becomes a block and they can’t voice it.

“It’s the fear of the unknown,” says Joseph. “‘What if I can’t do it? What if I don’t do it properly?’ That’s why the ‘what if?’ came up. It seemed so natural for the ‘what if?’ generation.  We ‘what if?’ ourselves out of situations that could be great.”

Children who have problems communicating often find it much easier to express their anger, because that’s what’s being recognized. All too often, kids get a bad rap for being difficult to work with and treat, and for being difficult at home, but often this is due to a lack of skills and education for everyone involved.

“What I find is when we sort of peel back the layers and find the core,” says Joseph, “we realize that it’s just anxiety and the fear of the unknown that kids are having a tough time describing. For some, it’s just easier to explode and throw a tantrum, rather than say, for example, ‘I still want to go and play soccer today.’ They just don’t have the tools. These are the kids that usually get labelled as having behavioural problems in the classroom or at home, but usually what I find is that this can be traced directly to anxiety.”

ANXIETY AT CAMOSUN

Duncan’s struggles are by no means unique. Today’s college students are suffering through a mental-health epidemic. Documented cases are rising steadily around the globe and students are feeling the effects in every facet of their lives. It can be an incredibly difficult discussion to start, but the solution can often be found in the discussion. Camosun counsellor Chris Balmer is the lead in the Student Mental Health and Well-Being Strategy, which is responsible for developing policies, spreading awareness, and providing the education and tools necessary to help support students in need.

Balmer says the most common problems faced by Camosun students are probably anxiety and depression. Relationships, depression, and anxiety are the top three issues discussed with Camosun counsellors.

“I would say it is far too likely that succumbing to the burden of stress or depression can be insurmountable,” says Balmer. “It can lead to dropping out or failing grades. It’s very isolating for many, so the first sign could be that someone is missing from class, but we wouldn’t know that because we don’t keep tabs on the students. We are really trying to encourage the faculty to watch for signs that students are struggling, and encourage them to take advantage of the services available.”

Stigma is complex in nature and can lead to a lack of understanding by friends, family, peers, and teachers. All too often, this leads to isolation, causing struggles to compound. It can be very difficult for students to seek help. Fear of judgement, or of being seen as weak, can make it difficult to discuss struggles with peers. Balmer says the the loss of confidence can suffocate a student and leave them unable to reach out and communicate. Combine this with the stigma and sometimes the conversation never starts.

“We try to reduce stigma and encourage conversations around mental health,” says Balmer. “We would like it to be seen in the same light as physical health issues. For example, if you have a cold, you can probably get an extension on an assignment, but because of the stigma, if you can’t get a paper done due to depression, it isn’t always seen the same way. Stigma goes both ways. There is also reluctance on the side of the employees because they don’t always understand the situation.”

Balmer says that many Camosun students don’t even realize that the counselling services are there. For many, they think of academic or career counselling, and it stops there.

“From a counselling point of view,” says Balmer, “it’s an individual process. First, understanding what is going on beneath the surface: family, trauma, current stresses and pressures… Then we can work collaboratively to reconnect with their energy, passion, and hope. That can include medication, or breathing exercises, CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy], learning how to understand their emotions, sometimes additional therapy; sometimes it’s as simple as reconnecting with nature. Always, in my experience, solutions include connections with friends or family—people that you can count on and trust, allowing you to be yourself.”

As for Duncan, art has shifted back to hobby as he deals with regular 19-year-old life. He still has a destination in his sights but the path is unclear.

“I’m still working a lot on my art,” says Duncan, “mostly drawing stuff that I like. A lot of the time it’s fan art, where I see a character I like in a cartoon or video game. I’m also working on my own comic right now. When I was younger, in middle school, I really wanted to be a video game designer. I also want to keep doing comic books. I would like to get into Capilano University for animation, but that’s kind of a ways off right now. I’ve never lived on my own before, so I’m going to work on that for a while. Once I’m used to that, then I’ll probably look into it.”

He’s working at a dollar store and getting a taste of life in the real world. It’s not glamorous, but it’s a necessary step. Freddie the Frog (which is available by emailing Joseph at freshsteps.jj@telus.net) has given him a taste of his dreams and he seems to have a direction.

“It was pretty awesome,” says Duncan. “I had had a few things printed before—not comic books, but posters of my art. Any time I see my work in print for the first time, it feels awesome. I’ve had art for sale before, but this is the first time outside of school that I’ve had a comic book for sale. That does feel pretty great.”

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