Mental wellness goes to school

A new course in Saskatchewan teaches high school and university students how to manage mental health challenges

Alexis Epp has turned a negative situation positive.

Her years of battling mental illness are now being directed to helping other young people who might experience similar issues.

As a teenager she struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts, as well as a medical system that did not seem able to help her.

Eventually, she got counselling and support, which she credits for turning her life around.

Now recovered, she has vowed to help others.

In fact, the 22-year-old has played a significant role in designing a new Saskatchewan high school course aimed at helping 15- to 22 year-old students learn about and manage challenges associated with mental health.

“I would love to help kids not feel alone and help them through one of the loneliest times. So moving forward, I put the strategies I had learned from books and my psychiatrists and friends who I found and we compiled all of our resources and put it into a course to help kids,” Epp said.

Mental Wellness 30 was launched by the Sun West Distance Learning Centre from its Kenaston, Sask., location last month after a successful pilot program was completed earlier this year.

With a made-in-Saskatchewan approach, content was developed by division counsellors, psychologists and people who have lived with mental illness.

“We wanted to create a course that kids could take so they could work on their self-care and improving their mental health and their overall wellness,” said Elaina Guilmette, who was instrumental in developing the curriculum and is teaching the online course.

“Our goal is to make kids not feel isolated and alone and reach them before they feel that way. This is a preventive, proactive curriculum. So it’s all about giving them the tools before a mental health crisis happens.”

The course is designed to help students develop greater balance in their lives, improve their resiliency, increase their awareness of mental health issues and reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.

“Mental health runs on a continuum we can’t control. We never know when we’re going to go through a challenge or a stressful time in our life. But if we have a toolbox in our head of understanding the different ways that we can cope, then we’d be able to make it through those situations easier and we’d be able to buffer life’s challenges,” said Guilmette.

The course addresses anxiety, depression, suicide, OCD, ADD/ADHD, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, psychosis, schizophrenia, addictions and drug abuse.

Guilmette credited Epp, a former student, for the inspiration to develop the course and help design the curriculum.

“It was built from a kid’s perspective that had mental illness,” she said.

Added Epp: “Elaina and I co-created it and we spent hours coming up with what we think would be the best. And then we had psychologists, counsellors, so many people look over the course and just make sure that what we were saying is helpful and going to benefit the kids and is the right information.

“We really want it to be relatable in a comfortable class where you feel safe, where you feel understood and good for mental health. Like you’re not going to get discouraged by taking this course. You’re going to feel empowered.”

Mental Wellness 30 is gaining endorsements, including from the Saskatchewan division of the Canadian Mental Health Association and the office of the Saskatchewan Advocate for Children and Youth. Several pilot programs have launched in schools throughout the province as a result.

The Royal Bank of Canada and its RBC Foundation has donated $100,000 toward operating costs in the first year.

Part of the funding is being used to allow 40 students to enrol in the course who do not reside in the Sun West school division.

“We wanted to really be able to reach very remote and rural communities where they might not have a teacher that could teach a class like this or they might not have access to counselling support or they might be in a space where they can’t leave their house,” said Guilmette.

Funds will also be used to hire trained peer supporters, like Epp.

“A peer supporter is not a counsellor, but someone who can relate to what you’re going through. So it’s just kind of like talking to a friend for all those people who feel like they don’t necessarily have a friend to offer healthy management within their mental health,” said Epp.

The program is long overdue, said Guilmette.

“I’ve been a phys-ed teacher for a lot of years. There is nowhere for kids to learn these types of things in school. And I’m finding that a lot of kids that are taking the course are actually very interested in pursuing health and education. And I think that’s a really important piece that they learn these tools now before entering those fields,” she said.

Added Epp: “Even if they don’t suffer from mental health, I still think it will attract kids. It’s a chain reaction.… And even if they don’t suffer a mental illness, guarantee they know someone who does.”

More information is available by contacting Elaina Guilmette via phone at 306-252-1000 or by email at elaina.guilmette@sunwestsd.ca.

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