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Cultivating mental health conversations in Guelph

Written on February 26th, 2018

Mental health is the No. 1 concern of parents in Canada. Today, more people are aware of how mental health connects with other areas of our lives and the need to increase resources and break down stigma.

For the past four years Guelph Community Christian School (GCCS) has been engaging a counsellor through Five Star Relationships, creating a resource for teachers and families to tap into when emotional issues arise. Having the counsellor on-site at the school every Tuesday promotes a wholistic and respectful approach for a child and his or her situation.

The on-site counsellor helps students through areas like conflict resolution, problem solving skills, emotional regulation and dealing with feelings. “It’s been really successful and its unique, it has allowed us to experience a lot of freedom and a constant resource in our life,” said vice-principal Tanya Pennings.

In addition to the counselling services GCCS has ongoing initiatives that focus on the whole child. Upper grades are involved in Tribes work, a group of students are working with counsellor Hanneke Verbeek on a unifying project, and the school utilizes restorative practices. Last month, GCCS put mental health in the spotlight with afternoon activities for students and an evening seminar for parents and community members.

The January 23rd events tied into the school’s emphasis on looking at the whole child, said Ms. Pennings. The school’s staff recognize their role not just in their student’s academics but also in their emotional well-being. “We know about Jesus weeping, we know these emotions are part of life and yet I think sometimes when we talk about mental health we always think about it in a form of illness, we don’t always think of it as just mental health,” she said, noting health of any sort is important.

GCCS values hosting these kinds of conversations because mental health needs the support of both home and school, principal Marvin Bierling said. When the school and parents share information and work together the students are better supported.

The event aimed at connecting with all members of the Guelph community on the topic of mental health. Students in Grades 2 through 8 engaged in afternoon sessions focusing on mental health conversations and activities geared to their age and development stage.

Grades 2 and 3 took part in activities to increase their vocabulary for talking about feelings. Students discussed how God made us to have different emotions and feelings and each presented a page about feelings that they had written and illustrated.

The teachers read How are you Peeling?: Foods with Moods, and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. The books sparked conversations, such as what to do when you have difficult days like Alexander. Rachel, a Grade 3 student, said she learned about ways to help deal with emotions, such as reading a book. Grade 3 student Jamie said he learned “it’s okay to feel sad.”

The students also found descriptive words that make it easier to talk about feelings, like being mad or disappointed. They each made an emoji craft using a coffee filter, which were later displayed on the library’s bulletin board.

Students in Grades 4 and 5 participated in exercises led by the school’s counsellor, Hanneke Verbeek, that focused on empathy development. They discussed what empathy means and went through a drama-like exercise as they put someone else’s shoes in front of them and imagined their reaction in various scenarios.

Continuing the theme of being in someone else’s shoes Mrs. Verbeek showed a video that follows various people in a restaurant with text describing that person’s story. Students were asked to pick one character and think what they might do or say if they were aware of that person’s story. They discussed how to show empathy to others at school and listened to the song So Will I by Hillsong United, with lyrics about how God loves each person and to reflect that love to one another.

“We talked about how our life is a worship to God,” she said. “How we act towards others is how we worship Him.”

The session aimed to teach students that sometimes people behave in certain ways because they have a story or stress in their life, and the importance of responding with empathy and care. This is a challenge for young children because their stage of development is more egocentric.

Students in Grades 6 to 8 took in a presentation from guest speaker Christy Hiemstra who lost her son, Jordan, to suicide when he was 17. The school had heard about her brave walk through her journey and invited her to share. Mrs. Hiemstra showed a slideshow with photos from Jordan’s childhood. He was a typical teenager, active in his school and church. She also shared how he heard untrue voices. Depression isn’t something that people can just “shake off,” and it isn’t “all in your head,” but is an illness, she told the students.

Mrs. Hiemstra gave students examples to demonstrate how important it is to tell someone if you or someone you know is struggling with a mental illness. For example, just like how a cold can turn into a flu, which can turn into pneumonia and into something worse, she shared how important it is to tell someone if something is not right.

She shared the quote: “There is no shame in asking for help; it’s the most courageous thing you’ll ever do.” Mrs. Hiemstra went through examples of who to tell: a parent, friend, teacher, or coach you trust, or call the, or reach out via a hot line. Among the takeaways for students to remember was to tell someone, be the light for others, and God loves you.

After the presentation, students went back to their classrooms and teachers went through debriefing conversations. A Grade 8 teacher invited her students to share takeaways on the whiteboard, discuss them with a partner, and led a standing circle conversation. The debrief often circled back to the importance of telling a trusted adult when someone is struggling, even if that friend asked you not to. Mrs. Hiemstra and Ms. Pennings also visited the classrooms and welcomed further questions.

Grade 8 student Bianca said she thought the presentation was powerful, especially the part which had her thinking of examples of who to talk to. “I realized just how many people would be there for me,” she said. “If I was ever thinking like that there would be so many people that would be affected, and I think that’s true with everybody.”

Hearing Jordan’s story also made Bianca think about her peers, as Jordan was a very happy child. It made her scared for others and not knowing what darkness they might be facing inside.

Hugh, also in Grade 8, said he took away the importance of opening up to someone. “If anyone is struggling, definitely talk, because it helps a lot,” he said.

The sombre and thoughtful discussions demonstrated the seriousness of the topic and maturity of the students. “Hearing the take-aways that the students shared in their classroom were very insightful and thoughtful,” said Mrs. Hiemstra. “I saw that these students care deeply about each other and can think about mental health (mental illness) seriously.”

During the evening event, GCCS hosted a seminar entitled “Your Child’s Mental Health: Assessing Risk Factors” for parents and community members. Andrea Groenewald, founder of Five Star Relationships and a Registered Psychotherapist, and Christy Hiemstra, who shared about losing her son to suicide, were guest speakers. About 60 people came out on the cold and icy winter’s evening, many of whom were new faces for the school.

Mrs. Groenewald, who worked with the school to set-up the on-site counselling relationship, shared about the Canadian mental health landscape. Among the statistics she shared is that nearly one in five children experience mental health issue, and 90 percent of individuals who have died by suicide had a mental illness.

“The top concern that parents have today is their children’s mental health,” Mrs. Groenewald told the OACS News Service. “That’s saying something. I think the whole landscape of mental health now is about building resiliency and building healthy mental health, because we all have a lot of stressors and things that we deal with in our everyday life.”

She walked through possible symptoms of mental illness, and shared ways to build resiliency and promote positive mental health.

Mrs. Hiemstra shared the same presentation from earlier in the day, adding more details for the older audience. During the Q & A portion following, one GCCS parent thanked Mrs. Hiemstra for sharing her journey with the students. “You’ve allowed a different conversation at the dinner table,” she said.

Other points raised through the evening’s conversations were the need for professionals to help assess a child who may be showing signs of depression. For example, people don’t say, “I think my child has cancer”—they get it assessed. This should also be the case with a mental illness.

Mrs. Hiemstra told OACS News Service that sharing Jordan’s story has been important. “Jordan did not share his deep sadness and hopelessness with his family or friends, as a result this has caused his family and friends much pain and a sense of helplessness,” she said. “If talking about mental illness can save another family from the sorrow that we have experienced, what a blessing that would be.”

Mrs. Hiemstra commends GCCS for taking proactive care in the mental health of their students. “I was blessed to have been part of this,” she said.

Reflecting on the Janurary 23rd events, Ms. Pennings said the evening encouraged the link between home and school and provided a shared experience. There is now an opportunity for the school’s community to spread the topic wider, as people are getting more comfortable discussing with one another. “I look forward to continuing the journey with more knowledge,” she said.

In the days following students were using what they learned about emotions in conversations. For example, Ms. Pennings overheard a casual conversation where a child said to another, “I imagine what kind of emoji you have right now.” While emojis make it playful, it also prompted the child to open up in response to his classmate’s comment.