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St. Joseph's Care Group

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Local Students Learn About the Stigma of Mental Health and Addictions

Students from St. Ignatius High School attend a day of learning at Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital
Students from St. Ignatius High School attend a day of
learning at Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital

Date: 2015-01-16

For the first time in history, a Grade 11 high school "class" was held at Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital (LPH). Twenty-six students from St. Ignatius High School crossed Algoma Street for a lesson on mental health and addictions issues, a tour of LPH, as well as an afternoon visit to Sister Margaret Smith Centre and St. Joseph's Health Centre.

The day-long field trip is part of a plan by St. Joseph's Care Group (SJCG) to embed mental health course work and modules into school curricula. The hope is that this "education day" is the first of more to come.

"We really wanted to plant the seed," said Janet Sillman, VP Addictions & Mental Health at SJCG. "Through education, we want to reduce stigma and to increase public awareness of mental health and addiction issues and services."

Studies conducted by the World Health Organization focusing on how to change people's beliefs about mental illness have found that the group most amenable to change is young people, Sillman said.

So when St. Ignatius teacher Sabrina Peterson contacted Sillman about a tour, she said it was the ideal opportunity. Peterson teaches a class called Introduction to Anthropology, Psychology and Sociology.

"Our Social Science Department's goal is to focus on student engagement through rich, authentic tasks," Peterson explained. "I had the idea to contact the LPH last semester to see if there would be an opportunity for us to visit."

Sillman was happy Peterson reached out.

"Young people already have a more heightened awareness around mental health, as compared to 10 years ago," Sillman said, adding that more than ever before, young people have better terminology around issues like eating disorders, substance abuse and depression.

"This teacher had the courage to do something different and to take a risk," she noted. "Kids used to be afraid to come through the doors, and that's really what this is about - opening the doors and coming out of the shadows."

During the day, the students learned about the history of LPH and other mental health institutions across the province. They heard how treatment, programs and services for those living with mental illness and addictions have changed and progressed based on advances in mental healthcare. The students also engaged in discussions and participated in activities that gave them an opportunity to explore the concepts of mental health rehabilitation and recovery.

"From the enthusiasm and participation during the morning session it was evident that the students were gaining a comfort and insight into current mental health practices," said Katherine Stewart, Psychosocial Rehabilitation Coordinator, who led one of the education-day discussions. "I could see them starting to realize and understand that people who experience mental illnesses have hopes, dreams and goals for their future, just as they do."

The experiential element of the day continued as the students participated in mindfulness exercises, met with mental healthcare workers, and were given the opportunity to be physically present in an environment that many people, young and old, are often too embarrassed or too afraid to enter based on stigma, bias and ignorance.

For Grade 11 student Sophie Pynn, 16, the unique school day helped her classmates start the conversation around stigma and mental illness, and face their own biases and prejudices. She said it was interesting to hear the history of the LPH and inside perspectives.

"It was important because I personally think all ages should have an understanding about the mental illnesses that are all around us," Pynn observed. "Many people believe that people with a mental illness are dangerous. I now know that's not true. Visiting LPH has impacted the way I will view people, not judging them, but accepting them."

Even though plans are underway to close LPH and move inpatient mental health and addiction services to the new Specialized Mental Health Rehabilitation Program at St. Joseph's Hospital in 2017, SJCG President & CEO Tracy Buckler said raising awareness around mental health stigma with our youth should - and will - continue.

"These young people are the leaders of tomorrow," Buckler said. "If we can tap into their hearts and minds now, they will create positive change for the future."


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