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Nick Sarnelli
On Bell Let’s Talk Day, 15-year-old Nick Sarnelli shares a message with other young people experiencing mental health struggles.
January 27, 2021

Let’s talk about mental health: Your truth matters

Fifteen-year-old Nick Sarnelli was struggling with a history of abuse when he first met HHS social worker Rebecca Bliss.

Sarnelli wasn’t a stranger to the McMaster Children’s Hospital (MCH) emergency department at the time. Sometimes he was brought there for violent outrage and other times, for suicidal thoughts.

“My brain couldn’t even process what was going on,” he says. “There were so many times I was sent to emerg and I don’t even remember why.”

But now, he is healing. And on Bell Let’s Talk Day, he has a message for other young people experiencing similar traumas.

“I want kids to know that their truth matters because everyone deserves a voice and not everyone is given it,” he says. “They deserve better even if they don’t think they do.”

Child and Youth Mental Health program helps address traumas

Rebecca Bliss

Rebecca Bliss

Sarnelli and Bliss met during a treatment session at MCH’s Ron Joyce Children’s Health Centre. Bliss is a social worker in the Child & Youth Mental Health Outpatient Clinic where Sarnelli was referred to.

He was dealing with abuse at home, bullying at school, nightmares that kept him up at night, and struggled to have people believe his story.

He would come to an appointment at RJCHC and sleep. “It was the only place I could get peace and quiet,” he says.

About a month into their sessions, he told Bliss about his plan to end his life. She immediately called on her colleagues in the Child & Youth Mental Health Inpatient Unit at MCH, who took Sarnelli to the hospital for more intensive, overnight care.

Nick and Rebecca on two screens, on a virtual appointment

Due to the pandemic, Nick and Rebecca conduct their appointments virtually from their home computers.

Treatment plan puts Sarnelli on the right path

“When I first met Rebecca I was over the edge. I didn’t think I needed therapy,” says Sarnelli. “I was acting like a tough guy.”

But after his treatment in the inpatient unit, he realized he really did need help. That’s when it clicked.

Sarnelli was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In his first year of treatment with Bliss, he was learning skills to deal with stress and big emotions. Now, they are working on processing Sarnelli’s past trauma, so that he can address triggers when they pop up.

During this trauma processing – called prolonged exposure therapy – Sarnelli will be purposefully retelling his memories. This evidence-based intervention for PTSD will help him process the traumatic events and reduce the triggers associated with them.

“It’s very intense,” says Bliss, who also says they were able to reach this point because Sarnelli and his family continued to show up to therapy, even throughout Sarnelli’s initial violent outbursts. “When everything seemed to be against him, he kept walking into the building, no matter what.”

Nick Sarnelli and Rebecca Bliss

McMaster Children’s Hospital social worker Rebecca Bliss has been working with Nick Sarnelli at Ron Joyce Children’s Health Centre for almost two years.

Huge strides

Sarnelli is not only going to school now, but is getting good grades. He’s running a couple of apparel businesses online, and hopes to get back to creating YouTube videos for his thousands of followers.

He and Bliss have formed a bond.

But most of all, he hopes to advocate for others who may be going through similar struggles.

“If you feel like you can’t trust your friends or your family, there is always someone out there that you can trust,” he says.

“I know therapy isn’t for everybody — but give it a shot.”