For Calgary and area youth, the social stigma and inaccurate information surrounding mental health and mental illness create monumental barriers in seeking appropriate help. Mental health concerns impact Calgarians of every age, background, ethnicity, and gender, however, more than 50% of mental illnesses typically surface before the age of 14. These difficulties can contribute to challenges with relationships and academic achievement, and often lead to isolation, low-activity, and negative self-worth. CMHA Calgary’s annual YouthSMART Initiative (Youth Supporting Mental Health and Resiliency Together) breaks down these barriers by providing authentic, evidence-based youth mental health engagement and education, free-of-cost in local junior and senior high schools.
The initiative kicks-off each fall with the YouthSMART Summit. This catalyst event brings together 250+ “SMART Leader” students and their teachers to participate in a powerful day of sharing, learning, and subject matter co-development. Combining large group presentations, local celebrities, inspirational speakers, and small group discussions, the Summit is designed to generate an awareness of mental health topics, while actively empowering youth to take responsibility in leading a climate of well-being and resiliency within their schools, communities. School teams then utilize their learnings from the day to spark meaningful mental health promotions amongst their peers and leave the event with year-long, youth-led project action plans that address mental health topics in their school.
Over the past 5 years, the outcomes from the YouthSMART Initiative have demonstrated that participating schools experience a whole-school, population-wide reduction in stigma, an improved understanding of mental health and resiliency, an increase in help-seeking behaviours, and a substantial shift toward a safe and supportive school culture.
Lord Beaverbrook High School is an outstanding example of the types of YouthSMART projects taking place throughout Calgary and area schools. With the support of teacher champion Jenn Mensink, students Jadelyn, Emily, Courtney, Amelia, Justine, and Claire worked diligently since the 2018 YouthSMART Summit to promote mental health awareness and a sense of community amongst their fellow students. This impressive group of grade 12 students named themselves the “Student Wellness Action Team”, or “SWAT”. The SWAT team planned a variety of incredible student engagement activities and campaigns and even executed a full 5 day mental health week event, featuring a different theme each day.
Read on to hear what the SWAT team was most proud of this year, and the advice they would share with other schools:
- What made you want to become a SMART School Leader?
Jadelyn: I wanted to increase awareness towards mental health.
Emily: I wanted to improve school wellness, reduce mental health stigma, and address the lack of mental wellness programs in our school.
Courtney: I was nominated, but mental health is so important.
Amelia: I relate to a lot of what everyone goes through and I like to communicate with my fellow students.
Justine: My medical studies teacher needed someone to step up and lead the initiative last year. I kept coming because I could see the difference we made.
Claire: My own struggles with mental health and the personal growth I experienced inspired me to try and convey components of healing with others.
- How did your YouthSMART activities increase mental health awareness in your school? What are you most proud of?
Jadelyn: Mental Health Week! While doing activities such as Taco‘bout it Tuesday, we gave out flyers regarding mental health, while giving out food!
Emily: We increased awareness by creating conversations, providing resources for students, and encouraged more involvement in activities that boost awareness.
Courtney: I am most proud of our mental health week.
Amelia: People became more involved with activities within the school, and this increased their awareness of mental health and the community around them.
Justine: By handing out pamphlets, running a mental health fair where students could easily get resources, and organizing speakers to talk about mental health, we have been able to decrease the stigma around mental health. I was most proud of our work for our various “Hug-in-a-Mug” events, which brought our school community together.
Claire: Our “Hug-in-a-Mug” and wellness fair had the greatest impact in the school. Many students said that the unexpected surprises (hot chocolate!) made their day.
- How has your own personal approach to mental health changed since becoming involved with YouthSMART?
Emily: I have a greater understanding of a wider breadth of mental illnesses and issues effecting youth. I now understand that many many people face mental wellness troubles within our school.
Amelia: I used to want to hide and not talk about mental health issues, but now I am more willing to share my experiences with others to spread more awareness of how we are all going through something.
Justine: Since I joined YouthSMART, I find that I notice more emotional changes in people and groups, and I am able to connect with people better and help them to face their problems.
Claire: My personal approach has not changed, but I am very proud of the mindful community we are fostering.
- What is your best piece of advice for future SMART School Leaders?
Jadelyn: Get involved in the programs at your school as it helps build community within the club itself and in the schools. It helps in finding people of similar interest, for example spreading mental health awareness.
Emily: I would say don’t be afraid to take actions and make your ideas known in your group, any idea can be developed into something great, even when not expected. Communicate! Address issues that you are passionate about, they will likely affect others within your community.
Amelia: Make your school a safer place, it is very easy to become caught up in the toxic aspects of school, and you end up forgetting what is most important.
Justine: Don’t let anyone tell you this club is “lame” and never apologize for advocating for mental health. Your work can save lives.
Claire: I would encourage future SMART School Leaders to think of creative ways to build community around the school. Remember that community is built on authenticity. I would ask people to explore what connection means to them.
- If you could, would you be a SMART School Leader again next year? Why?
Jadelyn: Yes, because I think that many people in high school struggle with mental health such as anxiety, depression, and many people are unaware that they are not alone; therefore it is important to build a sense of belonging by doing these events.
Emily: Yes! It gives an opportunity to impact the school community, and plan exciting events and initiatives.
Cortney: Yes, it was fun!
Amelia: I would if I could, but I am in grade 12 this year. I really like being involved in school mental health awareness.
Justine: I am graduating, so I will not be in the YouthSMART program next year, but I will be continuing to work in mental health in the future.
Claire: I am graduating, but it is so important to have other advocates in the student body.
The YouthSMART Initiative is ramping-up for the 2019-2020 school year. If your school might be interested in taking part, check-out YouthSMART.ca or message firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.