“We all have mental health and we all exist on the mental health continuum,” said Giuliana Malvestuto-Filice, the York Region Catholic District School Board’s mental health lead. “So it is important for everybody to be aware of their mental health.”
That’s the attitude that drove the board’s first ever mental health symposium for elementary school students, called Be Empowered, held April 1. A second event was held April 4. Each of the board’s 89 elementary schools sent at least two student representatives, along with a staff member, to York’s Catholic Education Centre to take part in the symposium.
The event is the part of the Ontario Mental Health and Addictions Strategy, a 10-year plan which began in 2011 to address the mental health and addiction problems within the province.
“It’s something that we’ve always swept under the carpet,” said Malvestuto-Filice of mental health issues.
At the symposium students took part in coping strategy workshops, watched videos recorded by celebrities who speak about their struggles and heard a presentation by motivational speakers from Youth Speak.
“These are youth who come out and talk to our youth,” said Malvestuto-Filice. “It is really important to have youth speak to youth.”
She referred to a board-wide survey conducted during the 2012-2013 school which concluded that the majority of students are very concerned about mental health with anxiety, depression and stress among the areas of most concern. Bullying and aggression were also consistently highlighted as areas of concern.
Joel Goldberg, York University’s psychology department chair, delivered the keynote address that day. He said raising awareness about monitoring one’s mental health is needed because unlike with physical ailments only a fraction of people seek help on their mental health.
“When it comes to physical problems almost 100 per cent of young people seek the help that they need,” he said. “But when we do surveys of people with mental health problems only about one in five people seek the help that they might need.”
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20 per cent of Canadian youth will suffer from a mental illness with 70 per cent of cases beginning before the age of 18 and 50 per cent occurring before 14 years old.
Goldberg said events such as Be Empowered help by “opening up the conversation about mental health,” which “helps to reduce the stigma that is one of the barriers for seeking help.”
But it isn’t just awareness the event is promoting; it’s also encouraging action.
“That is what it is all about, early intervention,” said Malvestuto-Filice.