Supporting Mental Health and Wellness at Southridge
Parveen Loodu

Mental health and wellness is top of mind these days…and for good reason. Mental illness indirectly affects all Canadians at some time through a family member, friend, colleague, or directly. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association based on a 2013 study, in any given year, 1 in 5 people in Canada will personally experience a mental health problem or illness. Mental illness affects people of all ages, education, income levels, and cultures.

Unfortunately, almost half of those who feel they have suffered from depression or anxiety have never gone to see a doctor about this problem. Stigma or discrimination attached to mental illnesses presents a serious barrier, not only to diagnosis and treatment but also to acceptance in the community. And this is despite the fact that many mental illnesses can be treated effectively upon consultation with medical professionals.

Recognizing the importance of mental health and wellness is an important first step in ensuring people have the tools and knowledge needed when and if mental problems or illnesses occur. Southridge is committed to developing students with strong minds and good hearts so both our Junior and Senior Schools have various resources and initiatives devoted to supporting and promoting mental health and wellness. 

While mental illness is less common in children, there has been a spike in anxiety and stress related issues. And knowing that many of these issues are becoming more prevalent the older kids get, our Junior School has incorporated Second Step. Second Step is a program rooted in social-emotional learning (SEL) that helps foster a supportive, successful learning environment uniquely equipped to encourage children to thrive.

Second Step’s holistic approach helps create a more empathetic community by providing education professionals, families, and the larger community with tools to enable them to take an active role in the social-emotional growth and safety of our students. It provides a sense of safety and respect grounded in the social-emotional health and well-being of the entire school community.

Junior School students participate in Second Step program activities once per cycle (so about once every six days). The K-4 program is more structured, and it is used as a starting point to teach general concepts such as skills for learning, problem solving steps, empathy, how to calm down, and fair ways to play.

As students enter the Middle Years Programme (MYP), areas of concentration for social emotional learning include mindset and goals; values and friendships; thoughts, emotions, and decisions; and serious peer conflict. The Junior School Councillors, Graeme Swan and Wendy Turriff, lead and tailor the MYP curriculum so it addresses identified issues whether it be from teachers or faculty, parents, or the students themselves.

These days, students can be dealing with a variety of issues that lead to anxiety or stress. For example, family issues such as the loss of a loved one or a change in family structure; or social relationship challenges such as peer conflicts or feelings of loneliness or isolation; or performance stress brought on by overscheduling and perceived perfectionist pressures.   

The Second Step program teaches the language and provides techniques for students to identify appropriate responses. It also sets the stage for students to be able to self-identify as needing emotional support.

“A big challenge for students today is the busyness they feel from being overscheduled,” says Counsellor Swan. “It is common for families today to be so busy and disconnected due to a false understanding of success and perfectionism. Our kids don’t need to be signed up for so many extracurricular activities after a full day of school, and they certainly shouldn’t think they have to be the very best at everything they do. It’s difficult to extract the joy of the activity if there’s an unattainable perception of needing to be the best, which undoubtedly causes stress, anxiety, and an unhealthy competitive nature in some children,” continues Counsellor Swan.

The counsellors offer individual and group (peer/family) counselling services and use a variety of therapies including play and art therapy. Play is an expressive therapy that allows the children a natural way to express themselves without necessarily having to use language (e.g. with puppets, dolls, cars, playdough, sand tray). Play therapy is an effective way to observe children process issues and allows counsellors to be alongside students as they express themselves – this therapy enhances conversation, especially with younger children.

Art therapy provides students an opportunity to express themselves through their art. Through the creation of drawings or pictures, some students can better tell their stories and express themselves or share challenges they are feeling. The Junior School also has an artist trading card club, where once a week at lunchtime, students can listen to music, and create art cards to express themselves in the counsellors’ office.

“As we can all recognize, times have certainly changed. I think society has become more and more disconnected from each other ironically enough due to technology, the internet, and gaming,” says Counsellor Turriff. “Kids don’t often go outside to play with each other anymore in an unstructured setting – many are losing the ability to make those face-to-face connections and interactions that are so important to learn at a young age…and this carries on into adolescence due to social media. They really need to learn how to enjoy free time (away from tech/devices), build interpersonal relationships, and understand that it’s okay to be bored or have nothing to do.”

Our Senior School also offers full-time counselling services (one-on-one or group), which students can use voluntarily or can be referred to by a teacher, advisor, or parent. Much like the Junior School, the counsellors are available to help students work through any stress or anxiety due to family or friendship challenges, depression, self image issues, or conflicts with teachers or peers.

It is not uncommon to find students taking advantage of counselling services’ calming space at lunchtime while they take a ‘therapeutic break’ to colour or create art in a quieter space or play with the sand tray which provides a relaxing positive sensory experience. During Leadership Experience Week, counselling services also coordinates mindful activities for students such as yoga, self defense classes, or art therapy.

The Senior School also has a few clubs which promote mental health and wellness. About five years ago, the Senior School introduced a Mental Health and Wellness Club with the purposes of: 1) generating awareness; 2) providing people with strategies to deal with stress/anxiety; and 3) reminding us all the importance of looking after our mental health.

Over the years, the club has spearheaded various initiatives like bringing in guest speakers, offering fun reminders (i.e. free hot chocolate or lemonade with inspirational quotes written on each cup), and leading art projects like the smile campaign (i.e. writing on a piece of paper something that makes you smile).

The Senior School’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) Club also meets monthly and provides a place for students and faculty to connect. This year, SOGI worked with the support of our counsellors and the faculty and staff to ensure that all our students feel safe, accepted, respected, and welcomed regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion, or background.

Together, they developed official signage that recognizes and reminds everyone that both the Junior and Senior Schools are ‘safe spaces’ that are caring and inclusive for all. The goal of this initiative was to make a visible statement about the fact that our community recognizes the importance of creating an environment that is safe and free of discrimination, with the hope that students who may have felt isolated in the past will feel accepted, safe, and respected.

Mental health and wellness are essential components to living a full life. As a school whose mission is to ultimately support students to reach their full potential, it is our goal to provide students with the tools and knowledge they need to support mental health and wellness, so they can go out into the world and make a difference in their families, workplaces, communities, and on the world stage. 

By Parveen Loodu, Communications and Marketing 
From the Spring 2019 Spirit Magazine