Be Better // Think Better

Mental health symposium supports Stop the Stigma

Published on November, 29th 2013
By Dr. Greg Wells

The Toronto Catholic school board’s fifth annual Mental Health Symposium for Students held Thursday, Nov. 28 is part of what makes it top in the field among boards across Ontario, reported its mental health leader.

Patricia Marra Stapleton, the board’s psychological associate, said its recent adoption of suicide-intervention guidelines as board policy makes it one of only a handful of boards across Ontario to do so.

Marra Stapleton and colleague Lori Nichols made a presentation on Journey to Wellness, one of 12 workshops available during the day-long event at The Old Mill to more than 300 board staff, Stop the Stigma team high school students, as well as guests, including Toronto public board representatives. St. Bernard and Transfiguration elementary schools’ staff and students also participated.

Titled, “No Health Without Mental Health”, the day was intended to raise awareness of mental issues and provide a base of knowledge to equip Stop the Stigma student teams to raise awareness within their own schools.

“This is unprecedented,” Marra Stapleton said of the creation in 2011 of her position and 71 others in Ontario school boards jointly by the provincial ministries of education, child and youth services and health and long-term care. “It is monumental. Evidence is mounting that mental health and wellness supports students’ well-being and achievement. Evidence and studies continue to show students achieve, stay in school, don’t drop out and become contributing citizens of their community.”

One in five Canadian adolescents struggle with mental health challenges throughout their lives, and only one third of those who need mental health services in Canada actually receive them, a 2009 Mental Health Commission of Canada report indicates.

The board’s mental health strategy for students addresses mental wellness, depression and anxiety predominantly, but also addresses suicide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Canadians aged 15 to 34, Statistics Canada reports.

The strategy involves mental wellness promotion — “What is it? What does it look like? Who to call for help?” Marra Stapleton said — prevention targeting the symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as intervention, including possible referrals to community mental health partners.

“We want to bring mental health out of the shadows. In some circles, people still whisper about mental health,” Marra Stapleton said. “We’re breaking down barriers, chipping away at them…’Let’s end the stigma. You’ve got to talk to somebody. Don’t keep it a secret.’ The eloquence and simplicity of that message is incredibly powerful.”

Students agreed.

“Mental health is not a one-person issue. We have each other (for support),” Don Bosco Catholic Secondary School Stop the Stigma team member Sebastian Ki, 16, said in an interview.

Nicole O’Brien, 15, designed Don Bosco’s Stop the Stigma T-shirts, of which 100 were sold and funds donated to a mental health agency. An elephant is on the T-shirts’ front. “Can you see it?” is written on the back, a reference to mental health as the elephant in the room.

“Today is a great opportunity to educate people about mental wellness,” Mariah Rodriguez, 14, said. “It helps people talk about it. You learn you don’t have to battle it on your own. Try to talk to someone.”

Stop the Stigma is an awareness week held in Toronto Catholic high schools to raise awareness of mental health issues, and offer students’ support.

Dr. Greg Wells presented the symposium’s keynote address.


Wells is a health and high performance expert who has inspired better living through better nutrition and better fitness for 20 years. A coach, scientist and physiologist, Wells is an assistant professor in kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto. He is an associate scientist in physiology and experimental medicine at The Hospital for Sick Children.

Wells’ high-energy, motivating 45-minute talk shared with board staff and students how to perform in a “moment of crisis” by sharing stories and photographs of Canadian Olympic athletes in performance he has coached, including current reigning world champion sprint kayaker in the K-1000m Adam van Koeverden, and Rosie MacLennan, the current reigning Olympic champion in the individual trampoline event after winning Canada’s only gold at the last summer Olympics.

Wells said the keys to performance in moments of crisis are — goal setting; getting in ‘The Zone’; eating better; moving better; thinking better and living better.

“In a moment of crisis be able to take deep br

eaths, focus on one thing, live in the moment, get sufficient sleep. End up in high performance. End up in good health. In a moment of crisis, be like Rosie MacLennan — energetic, in control, with no tension, no anxiety and no mental health issues.”

“Be Better. Anything is possible,” is Wells’ belief.

“Believe having mental health as a reality for the entire world is something we can achieve. Dreams that are almost impossible to achieve are the best ones to have,” said Wells, who has competed in three marathons, including the Nanisivik Marathon, one of the world’s toughest 600 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Wells also completed the Tour D’Afrique, which at 11,000 kilometres is the longest bike ride in the world.

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