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Using Student Creativity to Develop a Mental Health Curriculum for Schools

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In thinking about mental health for students, who are the experts? Perhaps it is the students themselves who are the experts. As institutions try to design and implement programs to support student mental health, student input may be the most unambiguous way to ascertain their needs and ensure that programs are truly effective.

In fact, students can contribute more than that. When it comes to raising awareness and health promotion, it’s worth thinking about what it is that students are interested in learning about. Would basic mental health education for students be more effective if it came from the students themselves?

To explore this, The Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health is focusing this month’s Spotlight on the The Warrior Within project, speaking with Catherine Wachter, the Creative Director of Warrior Within Initiative.


 

CICMH: Thanks for taking the time for this. First off, what is the Warrior Within and how did the program get started?

Catherine: It started last April. I’m a guidance counsellor and I saw that there were a lack of creative resources to talk about mental health. We decided to shoot a professional film over the summer, last July. We created an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for it over the summer. We approached students and I said to them “You are artists, why don’t you work on your artwork based on the themes of the film?” We had students working on the film score, the art and the shooting and all of them had a professional mentor. The film uses metaphor and imagery to help engage students in their understanding of stress, anxiety and how to individually develop their own resilience.

Toward the end of the filming experience, we had the idea to turn this into a curriculum for the classroom. In fact, we decided that the kids needed to create a curriculum. What better way to engage students? I knew that this would engage kids more than a teacher walking in with a PowerPoint just talking about mental health.

The goal of the Warrior Within is to run this like a camp every year. So kids can apply from all over the country, with their different art forms. Then we’d make a film of all that and create a curriculum every year.

CICMH: Could you tell me more about the student curriculum that is being designed?

Catherine: In January, a student group of 10-12 kids from different schools started creating lessons plans, and they loved the experience. It was very empowering. They meet on Thursdays with their computers out and brainstorm for ideas. I barely pipe in – it’s all them. It’s about what they want to get across. They come up with lesson plans, thinking about what they’d want to learn about if they were in the classroom. Once they’re done with that, I will run it through our social worker just to make sure we’re safe and we’ve covered the material that we’d like to cover.

CICMH: So why a film instead of any other type of media – music or interpretive dance, for example? Was there something that you wanted to capture which couldn’t have been done any other way?

With film I knew that I would be using music and imagery, which could create a very powerful dialogue. You can do a lot with film. I wanted something easily transportable and accessible to classes. So if it were a live performance or relying on a teacher to read a text, it would have been that much harder to get it out there. A film like this is just more appealing to kids.

CICMH: This project was being driven mostly by the students. What was it like for them?

Catherine: The students worked on their art guided by their mentors in a way that let them express what they wanted to. They felt validated when they were asked to participate. They felt like their experiences mattered and their voices mattered. It was also a more intense experience for them, bringing their emotions to the surface through their art. Their empathy levels rose and they became very empathetic towards each other. Towards the end of the four days of filming, it was like we’d been together for a year. Taking part in the project itself was a transformative experience for them and they well able to both learn and teach.

CICMH: We’re definitely seeing increased student interest in discussing mental health these last few years. Has something changed in the recent cultural landscape that precipitated this?

Catherine: Kids are talking more about it and stigma is lessened. When you lessen stigma, you get students who aren’t afraid to share their stories – and the response to those stories can be empathetic and further empowers others to share more. It tells them that they can do something about it. Schools and government are also starting to put in more resources for youth and it encourages them to talk about it.

CICMH: Why do you think it’s so important that students participate and lead projects like this?

Catherine: We need to keep talking about these issues in the classroom and it can’t just be on the shoulders of the teachers. In fact, not every school has a guidance counselor and sometimes mental health is only covered in Phys Ed class. The more you get students excited to talk about it, the more demand it creates to bring it into the classroom. We have to provide access and ways for the students to be a part of this conversation.  Kids are amazing drivers for their own learning. If you sit down and ask them what they want to know, and what they want others to know – half your work is done! Especially when it comes to mental health. It’s very subjective. With mental health, it’s a lot about self-reflection and self-discovery, so student voices are important.

CICMH: And there’s the upcoming gala in May when the film is going to premiere?

Catherine: Yes! The gala is to help us with fundraising for the project. All the students from the initiative will be at the gala, and the students working on the curriculum. There’ll be an art exhibit from 7pm-8pm of all the art that was in the film. Then from 8pm-9:30pm is the screening of the film and the student panel gathers to talk about the project.


 

At CICMH, we’d like to thank Catherine for her time.

For our readers – to learn more about The Warrior Within and the gala happening on May 17th, go to www.warriorwithin.ca or contact Catherine at catherine.wachter@utschools.ca for more information.