Charles P. Allen students launch Mental Health Week to help and educate peers

Mental health week organizers at CPA
Three co-organizers of the mental health week, Jess Ambrose (left) and Ethan Grey (centre) and Shirin Mehrpooya (right) a grade 12 student who is also co-lead of Jack.org at CPA (Contributed).

Students at Charles P. Allen (CPA) High School in Bedford are taking a deep dive this week into what it takes to foster their own mental wellness amidst the pressures of school, peers, social media and uncertainty about the future. This week marks the school’s first-ever Mental Health Week, which kicked off on Monday with presentations on mental health literacy, eating disorders and the effects of cannabis on the developing teenaged brain.

CPA’s Health Action Team and local chapter of Jack.org planned and organized Mental Health Week, which will see more than 20 experts deliver more than 60 talks and workshops from April 8 through 12. Topics include self-care, how to help a friend with anxiety, cyber safety, eating for a healthy mind, managing money when you’re on your own, and managing stress/finding peace through physical activity, positive mindsets, music and mindful art. The week will wrap up with a session on self-advocacy led by the Millbrook First Nations Iron Tide drummers and singers, and a sock derby with the Anchor City Rollers on Friday.

“Mental health is the most important issue that young people face,” said Ethan Gray, a Grade 11 student, leading member of the CPA Health Action Team and co-organizer of CPA Mental Health Week. “There are so many pressures today… Anxiety and social anxiety are really on the rise, as well as depression. I know a lot of people my age with mental health problems, and friends of friends, who have died by suicide. It’s important for all students to know how they can take better care of their own mental health and how they can support their friends who are struggling to get help.”

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 10 to 20 per cent of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder, Canada’s youth suicide rate is third-highest in the industrialized world, and only one in five children who need mental health services receives them. 

The CPA Health Action Team and chapter of Jack.org staged a day-long mental health event last year. This year, the students wanted to make a bigger impact with a more substantial message that would reach the entire student body, so they applied to the Cobequid Community Health Board for a Nova Scotia Wellness Fund grant to stage an entire week of mental health awareness talks and participative events.

“Everybody is affected when a young person suffers from a serious mental health issue,” said Madeleine Dillon, co-chair of the Cobequid Community Health Board (CCHB) and Central Zone Council of CHB Co-chairs. “As a community health board, we are well aware that youth in our community are struggling with mental health issues. The CPA Mental Health Week is really on target being led by youth, for youth, will increase the impact of the message that a mental health problem is nothing to be ashamed of, it’s important to seek help, and this is where you can find it.”

The student organizers hope the various speakers – including two youth speakers from Jack.org, a national non-profit dedicated to empowering young leaders to revolutionize mental health – inspire their peers to be more comfortable seeking help when they are facing mental health challenges. 

“Reaching out can be the hardest step,” said Jess Ambrose, Grade 11 student and one of the co-organizers of CPA Mental Health Week. “We want students to know first of all, that they’re not alone, and that there are resources here at the school, through the Youth Health Centre, and also in the community and online.”

Mental health literacy is also vital, according to the student organizers and their staff advisor, Jennifer Richardson, coordinator of the Youth Health Centre at CPA.

“You hear youth and a lot of other people throwing around words like ‘depressed,’ ‘anxious’ or ‘OCD,’ when really they’re feeling disappointed, worried or stressed,” Richardson noted. “Using the language of mental illness to describe normal feelings minimizes the suffering of people who are really living with these diagnoses and makes it harder for them to be understood and supported. We’re excited to have members of teenmentalhealth.org coming to the school to talk to the students about the importance of using the right words.”

Community health boards across Nova Scotia have awarded numerous Wellness Fund grants to community organizations and initiatives focused on youth mental health. Among many examples, South Colchester Academy is hosting a Mental Wellness Day on May 9, the Amherst Youth Town Council conducted a mental health and smoking survey, and the Acadia Mental Health Initiative, led by students at Acadia University, hosted a community summit on engaging the topic of suicide and building resilience.

In Guysborough, the Youth Health Committee is hosting a youth wellness forum, while in Cape Breton, groups are organizing events to help young people find creative outlets, make social connections and foster their own mental wellness. A number of CHBs have also provided funding to Eating Disorders Nova Scotia to reach out to communities with online and other programs to help people, including many teens, who are struggling with an eating disorder.

Across Nova Scotia, 37 volunteer-run CHBs are working to identify and address priority issues impacting health in their communities, such as poverty, food security, social isolation, mental health, substance use, housing and transportation. Every year, CHBs solicit and review Wellness Fund applications from local organizations looking to launch new grassroots initiatives to foster health in their communities.

For more information about community health boards in Nova Scotia and how to get involved in creating a healthier community, visit: www.communityhealthboards.ns.ca.