Students and staff utilize opportunity to speak openly about mental health

November 29, 2018
By Jens Nielsen, Editor, Saskatchewan Bulletin

Hardly a day goes by without the issue of mental health challenges coming to the foreground. It is often cited how youth are the most vulnerable, and in particular, within the social media world.

A quick glance at how engaged the students at Bishop James Mahoney High School in Saskatoon were during the various sessions conducted on World Mental Health Day (October 10), confirmed their collective desire to learn more and to be better prepared.

Tricia Carter, who is on staff at the school and is the Restorative Action Program representative, said the whole idea in planning the day’s activities was to “give the kids the tools they can use for daily stress in their lives and to recognize that 
we all have it.”

Acceptance is paramount according to school counsellor Tracy Hazen, who along with Carter, were the co-organizers of the event. “One of our key objectives was to bust some of the myths around mental health, and the stigma attached to it.

“There are so many challenges facing youth now. In a lot of cases they are looking for help, particularly when a person is singled out and targeted for abuse or bullying, for example. It’s important that together we start the conversation and have an open discussion about some of these things. You could see today that the kids really embraced that idea,” Hazen said, recounting how one student, along with her mother, thanked the organizers for the day and how helpful it had been for her specifically.

Students from Grades 9, 11 and 12 spent an hour during the day focusing on strategies to de-stress and looking at debunking myths concerning mental illness. Meanwhile, Grade 10 students spent the entire day in six different sessions targeted to create awareness about anxiety and depression, as well as to develop strategies to reduce daily stress.

Those Grade 10 students also have a regular mental health and addictions class as part of the school’s Health and Sciences Academy.

During this jam-packed day of activity, there were sessions in mindful yoga, art therapy, a de-stress walk as well as laugh therapy. Fourth-year nursing students from the University of Saskatchewan were also integrally involved in promoting awareness regarding mental health facts.

Carter has spent the past two decades with Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools in a variety of roles, including community school coordinator, Aboriginal student achievement coordinator and now as part of the RAP.

Currently there are nine RAP schools in Saskatoon, and it is a program of Saskatoon Rotary Clubs. As a partnership with schools and community partners, the program deals with a host of issues including bullying, physical violence, mental health, substance abuse, suicide and self harm.

“There are so many things kids are dealing with, whether it’s stress or anxiety, and we’re just trying to reduce the stigma attached to the whole area of mental health issues. It’s no different from diabetes. We need to talk about it and help kids recognize what they are dealing with and that there are resources they need to be aware of,” Carter stressed.

According to Hazen, it is important to note that this day was not created simply in response to an event that has unfolded.

“This has to be an ongoing initiative, and not because there might have been something that happened  to trigger these discussions. We need to build on this, and it’s part of the bigger, overall picture.” Carter added that being mindful of mental health issues has to be in concert with wellness and physical education as a wrap-around approach. Both Hazen and Carter were left to reflect on what they agreed had been a highly satisfying day. “This has been a terrific day when you think about the mental health literacy that we worked through together. Our staff has been really incredible in helping put this together. You could see the level of engagement from the students, and the sessions were full. I didn’t know the discussions would be so open and frank, so that was powerful for me to experience,” Hazen commented.

“I think with the involvement of the kids in helping plan the day, they felt like they owned it. We will build on this, and next year will be bigger and better,” Carter noted.