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Mental health a cross-Canada conversation for White Rock students

Peace Arch News - 2/4/2020

An effort to spark conversation about mental health among students across the country connected two classes of White Rock Elementary youth with their peers as far east as Nova Scotia and north to Inuvik and Iqaluit.

The one-hour RCMPTalks videoconference, held Thursday morning, was a "coast-to-coast-to-coast" initiative to provide the students with an opportunity to share their ideas around raising awareness of the issue, as well as what they had come up with for how to help others who may be struggling, without leaving their classrooms.

Gathered in a second-floor classroom, the White Rock pre-teens – many in yellow #yourvoicematters T-shirts – watched and listened as their Truro, N.S. peers told of building a website "where all our ideas will come together" and embarking on a campaign "to promote mental well-being," while their counterparts at Aqsarniit Middle School in Iqaluit, Nunavut spoke of placing posters around their school that bear messages to remind their schoolmates that "here… no one is alone."

At White Rock Elementary – the only B.C. school invited to participate on Thursday – the goal of improving the mental health of students and teachers alike inspired discussions around cyberbullying, suicide, body image and more, Grade 6 classmates Elia Sparling and Neyha Sidhu told the nationwide conversation.

Action plans, the students said, led to the development of a class-to-class talk on the topic, including a PowerPoint presentation; a website on the subject of cyberbullying, including resources and ways to help; and a poster campaign.

Other efforts at the White Rock school – shared by the students ahead of the videoconference – included the establishment of a 'Talk Tuesday' at the school; a day students co-ordinated with the school counsellor where "anyone can go and talk."

Later, Sidhu and Sparling told Peace Arch News that they "learned a lot" from participating in the project, including about how mental-health issues can affect people.

As well, that "there are a lot of resources I didn't know about before," said Sidhu.

She named Kids Help Phone – the confidential 24-hour counselling, information and referral line – among those resources.

"There's ways to get help," she said.

"It was kind of nice to know we got the message across," Sparling added. "We want (our schoolmates) to know they have a safe place (where) they can talk to people and they don't have to be afraid of it."

Teacher Ron Bencze described having students of different ages, from different schools and different parts of the country all talking about the same subject as "really cool."

He told PAN that he jumped on the opportunity to get his class involved, after learning of it through White Rock RCMP Const. Chantal Sears, the school's liaison officer.

Mental health "is a really serious topic, I think, especially with Grade 6/7s," Bencze said, explaining that students at this age can start to struggle with the reality that high school is just around the corner. Comments around it are "the first thing I hear in September," and remain a year-long theme, he said.

"They get nervous and excited. It definitely ramps up toward June."

Bencze said the "number-one" benefit of the students participating in the RCMPTalks project is the resources they now know about. As well, "we're trying to battle stigma."

The videoconference was not the end of it, he added. Students must still carry out their action plans and track the results.

Thursday's videoconference also included an opportunity for each of the classes involved to ask questions of guest speaker Joey Kidney, an Ottawa-born mental-health advocate who shares his journey with anxiety via his 'Stay You' videos on YouTube.

Prior to giving their presentation, WRE students wanted to know how many subscribers Kidney had on YouTube, and if he's heard from people he's reached with his messages.

Kidney said he receives messages "every single day on how I've impacted people." His subscriber number, he said, is up around 760,000.

Asked for his advice for ending the stigma that exists around mental illness, Kidney's message seemed simple: talk about it.

"It's definitely easier said than done," he acknowledged.

But, "it can be just as simple as talking to your friends… getting it out of your body," he said.

It's not an easy conversation, "but if you can find that strength… I'm sure your friends (can), too."