Austin Mardon and Victoria Throckmorton When he was five years old, Austin Mardon’s mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. One per cent of Canadians are diagnosed with schizophrenia, making it a relatively rare illness, but in a town the size of Lethbridge, Mardon’s mother was made to seem like even more of an anomaly. The community quickly discovered his mother’s condition, and Mardon and his family were isolated as a consequence of the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Mardon suffered from severe bullying at the hands of his peers due to his mother’s illness. He was cornered in corridors and shoved into lockers. He opened his locker one morning to find someone had smeared feces all over it. He had even almost been pushed down a flight of stairs while on crutches due to a knee injury.
One has to wonder why teachers at the school did not step in and protect Mardon. He says it was unusual for teachers to intervene in their students’ lives at the time. There was (and often still is) a social expectation for male adolescents to fight their own battles, even if that meant using violence.
Mardon was physically abused until the end of the 11th grade when he snapped and punched one of his aggressors. The physical harassment came to a halt but the verbal attacks did not.
Though Mardon left high school several decades ago, bullying is still a prominent issue. In 2010, a report done by the Public Health Agency of Canada showed that the number of reported bullies and the number of reported victims doubled in just eight years.
Recently, the organization PREV reported that bullying rates in Canada are two-thirds higher than other Western countries. In extreme cases, bullying can lead to depression and thoughts of suicide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth in Canada, and the alarming link between suicide ideation and bullying makes it clear that this is a serious public health issue that has yet to be adequately resolved.
In the case of Mardon, he persevered using the coping mechanisms he learned while in therapy. He learned to use literature as an escape from his torment and frequently conversed with professors and politicians who were his father’s friends. These conversations led to the realization that life extends beyond high school.
When Mardon shares his story with young people, he is quick to remind them that “it will get better. You do grow up . . . you can have a life.”
Mardon recognizes it can be difficult for adolescents to have this perspective and his words may come off as “platitudes . . . but it is sincere.”
If anything, Mardon’s life can serve as an example of how struggling can turn into incredible resilience. Mardon entered university, participated in a NASA sponsored expedition to the Antarctic, received a PhD in geography, and two honorary doctorate degrees. Turning to literature in his youth undoubtedly contributed to his success in publishing over 50 books, including “Ardross: From Prairie to Castle.” Though his childhood was lonely, he met like-minded individuals outside of his Lethbridge world and now has many friends, a wife and a fosterchild to share his life with.
For those who feel like they have no where to turn, Kids Help Phone offers 24-hour anonymous services to help victims of bullying. They can be reached at 1-800-668-6868 or online at kidshelpphone.ca.
Written by: Victoria Throckmorton of the Lethbridge Sun Times/Shopper