Emma Russell is a Grade 8 student who has been dealing with mental health issues for over half her life.
“I was diagnosed with anxiety when I was five years old and when I was nine, I was put on medication for it,” the 13-year-old said Monday.
“I feel like we all have it,” she added. “We might not all show it, but we show it in our different ways, whether that be stress related to school or friends or drama or depression, anxiety, feeling alone, not having anybody to talk to.”
Russell was one of over 200 students who attended the YouthSMART (Youth Supporting Mental Health and Resiliency Together) Summit in Calgary on Monday. It’s designed to generate awareness of mental health topics and open a dialogue among peers.
“We are seeing that kids need support younger and younger and I think that’s part of the increased awareness,” said Joy Pavelich, communications leader with the Canadian Mental Health Association in Calgary.
“There’s family stress and there’s economic stress,” she added. “Kids take on a lot of worries and they try to protect their parents and as a result, they’re holding onto a lot of stressors themselves.”
Organizers said the tips these students get at the summit will help create a whole-school approach to supporting each other.
“It’s about a safe environment and conversations where people don’t feel like they are different and they have to carry those things alone,” Pavelich said. “Because there’s so many different situations that can be affecting the person’s well-being. So we really want to make sure they know there are trusted people in their lives they can reach out to.”
When they head back to their classrooms, students will help spearhead initiatives with their peers, gaining skills to help themselves and others feel more comfortable dealing with mental health issues.
“That makes me feel really happy inside because I have personal struggles with mental health and anxiety,” Russell said at the summit. “Just being able to feel confident enough to share that and not hide that, I feel like that’s a good message to spread to all the other people who have been hiding, to know that it’s OK and their feelings are valid and they do matter.”
Participating schools become “SMART Schools” and will commit to the development and implementation of their action plans with the help of the Canadian Mental Health Association.