Local school board marks Mental Health Week with students
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Mental health in young people has become a much more robust conversation in recent years, as the thinking around mental health has shifted in much of the world.
As we enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has brought with it lockdowns, online learning and many interrupted lives, it has been young people and students who have been among those who have suffered the most. They’ve had to put their lives on hold several times since March of 2020 and now many in the world are finally paying attention to what the community’s young people are going through.
For Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Mental Health Week, The Citizen spoke with Heather Hirdes, the mental health lead for the Avon Maitland District School Board. She has only been in the top position since last summer, but she has worked with the board since 2018 when she was hired as one of the school board’s mental health counsellors.
Hirdes has earned her Bachelor of Social Work, specializing in child welfare, so she felt like working with the school board in regards to student mental health has been a “natural progression” for her.
When asked how work has been recently, Hirdes says it’s been “busy” after getting a lot started last year.
She says the board works with its team of mental health counsellors as well as a number of community partners to ensure the board can attend to any and all of its students’ mental health challenges. Some of the agencies include Choices for Change, the Huron Perth Centre for Children and Youth and Rural Response for Health Children, among others.
Students looking for resources and help from the board are sorted into one of three tiers, which increase with the complexity of the challenges being faced. In addition, with children between Kindergarten and Grade 12, Hirdes says that how the board helps its students differs greatly depending on their age.
For example, with younger children, one of the most basic first steps is the “name it to tame it” principle, which asks children to name the feeling they’re experiencing so teachers and counsellors can help them understand the feeling and how they can manage it.
Meanwhile, for secondary school students, Hirdes said there is a lot of work being done to increase awareness and understanding when it comes to mental health. She said at that age students are “moving to independence” and tend to push away. Work in those age brackets can encourage students not to push loved ones away, but to pull them closer when they need help.
In addition to helping students directly, much of the work being done by the board in regards to mental health is being done through the teachers in the classroom. Teachers are being provided resources to openly and honestly discuss mental health in the classroom, including guidance from partner agencies and even lesson plans to be applied.
These can be introduced over the course of the school year, Hirdes said, as there is about one day per month that addresses mental health in one way or another.
This week, however, for CMHA Mental Health Week, the board has rolled out something new every day to get the students thinking and speaking about mental health openly in the classroom.
At Hullett Central Public School in Londesborough, for example, they brought in a llama for the children to pet and interact with on Monday, with other activities scheduled throughout the rest of the week.
On Monday, Hirdes said, the lesson was helping out a friend, followed by a focus on kindness on Tuesday, naming emotions on Wednesday, demonstrating empathy on Thursday and inclusivity on Friday, encouraging students to embrace and celebrate differences.
As far as the last two years have gone, Hirdes said the impact on students has been clear as the demand for help from the board has increased over that time.
She said that students have suffered from having their lives interrupted both at school and in other social structures they had taken for granted, such as sports and other clubs. As a result, Hirdes says, the board has been seeing an increase in conditions like heightened anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders and more.
Children are dealing with feelings of grief and loss as a result of the pandemic, Hirdes said, and it’s been exacerbated by an elongated period of isolation. That goes back to the loss of community when students weren’t able to attend school or participate in sports.
Hirdes said a big part of the work she and her team will be doing over the course of the next year will be working to re-integrate students into the world as Ontario, hopefully, leaves the COVID-19 pandemic behind.
She said that some of the students who had heightened anxiety as a result of the pandemic will have a harder time re-integrating into society and that process will result in anxiety once again.
Because of the work that is on the horizon, Hirdes says the board will not be able to handle it alone, so she and others have made it a priority to reach out to community supports, resources and agencies, knowing that a monumental task awaits them.
For more information on the board’s work in regards to the mental health of its students, visit its website at amdsb.ca and find the “Mental Health and Well-Being” page, where you can find links to resources, videos and information on agencies working with the board.