SMHAC students pose for a photo with Matt Dusk (From left: Selena Da Luz, Alyssa Albanese, Matt Dusk, Taylor Dallin) Photo by Meggie Hoegler

Students build tip sheet for better mental health

  • December 18, 2017

Students at the Toronto Catholic School Board are firm believers that wellness starts with caring for mental health.

The message “we all have mental health” was repeated throughout the day at the board’s 10th annual Stop the Stigma symposium. On Dec. 7, student representatives from Catholic schools across the city gathered at the University of Toronto’s Hart House to share self-care ideas and tips for fighting the stigma surrounding mental illness.

The symposium featured a keynote address from Canadian jazz musician and St. Michael’s Choir School alum, Matt Dusk. Following a musical performance by Dusk, the students broke off into separate groups to try activities geared toward improving mental health. Activities ranged from spoken-word poetry to drumming to hip-hop dancing.

“We want the student leaders to try out a number of activities so they can get ideas for what to do in their own school communities,” said Patricia Marra-Stapleton, mental health lead for the board.

The program started with faculty in 2007. Today, it involves both staff and students at the elementary and secondary level. Student leaders who attended are part of their school’s Student Mental Health Advisory Council (SMHAC). In recent years, Stop the Stigma’s focus has been on the theme of student wellbeing.

“When we say mental health, we’re not always talking about mental illness,” said Marra-Stapleton. “We want to teach kids how to build resilience and show them ways to support their own mental health and wellbeing. We want them to understand that mental health, like physical health, is something we all have and have to care for.”

“It’s all about approaching it from a positive standpoint in order to erase that stigma,” said Claudia Escobar, student success lead resource teacher.

During a presentation given by SMHAC students, faculty and students shared activity suggestions for mental wellness. In his address, Dusk talked about his own struggles with mental health and how music helps him. Representatives from schools talked about yoga and art classes as a way to care for the minds of both students and staff.

Other schools brought in puppies to give stressed out students a chance to unwind with furry friends.

“In terms of how teenagers cope, we can see from the literature and from what our students tell us that the arts help. We want to focus on those aspects like dance, music and writing that help relieve stress,” said Marra-Stapleton.

Aside from arts programs, the symposium encourages dialogue surrounding mental health for parents, teachers and students.

“Sometimes it’s just having that conversation that really helps,” said Serena Baron, a Grade 12 student and SMHAC leader from Father John Redmond Catholic High School. “So students can stop feeling ashamed about how they feel. It is our job as student leaders to ... stop the stigma.”

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