The enormous success of Bell’s “Let’s Talk” Campaign is one of the most visible signs of a more open attitude toward mental health and wellness in our community and country today. But our Leaside schools are also more actively involved in bringing about a greater awareness of these issues, and in helping students to cope with them:
Two years ago, Leaside High School’s Assistant Curriculum Leader for Guidance, Denise Wilson, formed a Mental Health and Wellness Committee in response to an initiative of the Ministry of Education. The purpose is stopping the stigma around having a mental illness and helping students to cope with their illness.
The committee will hold their second Mental Health and Wellness Week from May 8 to 12 this year. It will include a variety of awareness-raising workshops and an assembly featuring a speech by Nicole German, the mother behind “The Maddie Project,” which honours the memory of her daughter.
Other activities of the group are Wellness Wednesdays with inspirational quotes read during the announcements, Green Tea mornings with soothing classical music, and visits by a team of four therapy dogs at exam time. Ms. Wilson reports that students are now more comfortable speaking about their issues with each other and their teachers.
Bessborough Elementary and Middle School
Here the Mental Health and Wellness Committee comprises students who themselves suffer from anxiety issues. In the group, started by teacher Sarah Buksner, the students work on strategies for coping with anxiety and discuss ways of spreading them throughout the school. For example, every week a “Mindful Minute,” which might involve mindfulness, breathing or movement exercises, is presented over the announcements.
One of the most popular features of Bessborough’s program is a weekly visit from local therapy dog Trinket, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, and her owner, Sue Jamieson. Trinket and Sue visit a number of classes where Trinket sits with students while they read to her. Karen Ho, a Grade 2 teacher, says “this activity helps the children to focus and do a better job. Trinket’s calming presence and affectionate nature are legendary throughout the school.”
Other initiatives include a Wellness Day in May, a full day of activities for all the students including physical play, an arts and music component, motivational speakers and a focus on nutrition. In addition, guidance counsellor Bianca Angheloni runs a breakfast club for Grade 7 and 8 girls, who prepare breakfast while discussing issues of concern to some girls. The school has similar groups for discussion and activities for both junior girls and boys.
Northlea Elementary and Middle School
Ms. Angheloni also spends time at Northlea School, where she runs a similar lunch-time discussion and activity group for girls, and Principal David Ehrlich does the same for boys. Other initiatives at Northlea include visits by a therapy dog to a special needs class and “community circles” to discuss feelings and respectful communication. Every September, the school holds a “Power of One Day” where Grade 7 and 8 students participate in several activities like participating in an exercise session, listening to a motivational speaker and attending workshops on healthy eating and yoga.
Rolph Road Elementary School
Meanwhile, Rolph Road School has just launched a “Leaders of Tomorrow” group whose main focus is student anxiety. A group of students will work with board social worker Fernanda Pereira, and connect with students from LHS for advice.
Bennington Heights Elementary School
Here a Kindness Week takes place in April. Each day focuses on a social, emotional or physical theme such as writing thoughtful comments about others, yoga, dance, and meditation.
St. Anselm Catholic School
Mental health and wellness activities at St. Anselm’s reflect the more spiritual nature of the school. For example, the day starts with a prayer on the public address system, and a monthly mass is held in the church next door. A Rosary Apostolate, held once a month, sees volunteers from the church visit classes to pray the rosary with the students in order to create a sense of wellness, inner peace, mental awareness and the capacity to love oneself and others. Principal Richard Walo states that this calming type of meditation “enables students and staff to clear their minds of the busyness of everyday life and concentrate on the inner self and being with God.”
Clearly our local schools are directing their energies to improving the level of mental health and wellness in our students. We all benefit from these efforts.