By Stephen Dafoe
Namao – Students, teachers and staff paraded the halls of Namao School Wednesday in a wide variety of exotic and comical hats. But while the head gear may have put a smile on Namao’s faces, the message behind their donning was dead serious – mental illness affects some 15 per cent of Canadian children.
The Sturgeon School Division school was one of 40 across the province participating in the Hats On! For Mental Health initiative, an event sponsored since 2009 by the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) and Global Television.
ATA Vice President Mark Ramsankar explained mental health is of great concern to his organization, given students often do not seek help for their concerns either because they do not know what resources are available or because of the stigma attached to mental health.
“We’re trying to let the community know as well as students that the stigma that’s attached with mental health [is based on myths and people have] nothing to be afraid of,” Ramsankar said, adding mental health issues are a common illness and that things like stress can affect a student’s learning.
One of the key messages in Wednesday’s event was awareness about what mental illness and mental health are and that help is there for the asking. Ramsankar said students and other Canadians often do not know where to go to seek help. Part of the day-long initiative Wednesday was to help students understand that help is closer than may be thought.
“When you break your arm, you know to go to the doctor,” Ramsankar said. “When you experience high anxiety and stress, where do you go? What do you do? That’s where the awareness comes in – what’s available out there.”
The ATA Vice President said often students can be directed to help by trusting in the adult relationships they have in order to get the support they need.
Ramsankar said the old adage about it taking a village to raise a child is certainly true with respect to mental health. “Adding to a student’s stress because they have issues is really difficult [on the student],” he said. “But if you know how to support a child you know is under stress, either through anxiety or having very real problems at home, that helps move them along.”
Namao School Counsellor Thomas Holmes said that support can come in many forms.
“It’s family. It’s friends. It’s mental health professionals. It’s everybody coming together,” Holmes said. “So we do try to look at that sort of systems perspective [where] it’s everyone supporting kids.”
For Grade 9 student Charleigh Kondas, donning a silly hat to participate in Wednesday’s event was an important statement to make on an issue that affects many fellow students and many of her generation throughout the country.
“I think it is important for students to know that it’s not a bad thing to feel down,” Kondas said. “It’s perfectly natural and it’s great to have resources and people to talk to at Namao. And there’s lots of them, even students. We’re like a big family with the staff and everybody. It’s really great to have that support and knowledge that this is a safe environment, and no matter what you are going through, you can always have somebody to be there to talk to.”
Kondas said there are a lot of pressures on people her age, pressures that can lead to stress.
“This generation is going through the most pressures of anybody right now,” she said. “We have sports and school and friends, and the pressure to be popular – whatever you want to call it. But sometimes we have people to bring us back down to earth and [to remind us] we’re all only human beings. We can’t deal with everything ourselves. And it’s great to have that recognition that we’re doing so much and we need some support.”
In total, 40 schools, 700 teachers and more than 12,000 students across the province in Wednesday’s mental health awareness initiative. Lesson plans for the day in elementary and junior high focused on recognizing the effects of stress and the value of managing it to maintain good mental health.