Students in Hay River and the Hay River Reserve will be getting a taste of a new program designed to improve their mental health over the next three years.
“It’s amazing,” said Jill Taylor, inclusive schooling co-ordinator for the South Slave Divisional Education Council. “It’s exactly what our schools have been asking for for years.”
Ray Hughes, the architect of the program, was in Hay River for two days last week to present it to teachers and staff from several schools in the community, as well as visitors from Fort Resolution. He said the 15-hour curriculum is designed to be flexible and to fit wherever a teacher or school feels it’s most needed.
Basically, the program – called the Fourth R – is founded on the belief that healthy relationships can be taught the same way as reading, writing and arithmetic.
“What we know is that today, mental health is a huge issue for teens across Canada, not just in the Northwest Territories,” he said. “One in five will experience some issues with it and there is still a stigma around talking about it.”
This program, he said, is meant to go beyond awareness and anti-stigma teaching and provide solutions for dealing with mental health issues for students from grades six through 12.
“We want them to focus on and understand how mental health aligns with relationships with their friends, with their parents, with their elders and with their teachers,” he said. “All the skills we want our kids to have, but haven’t been teaching them in school.”
The curriculum is part of a much larger study going on in 37 schools across Canada for the next three years. There will be three main evaluations, at the beginning and end of the program, as well as one sometime during, to see how the material affects students and schools.
Hughes said that the issues facing kids across Canada tend to be similar – sex, drugs and violence. He did note, however, that there are particular challenges in the North and in isolated communities. Bullying, for example, can be more of an issue in small communities because victims have a harder time avoiding perpetrators, for instance, outside of school.
Hughes also said that while substance abuse is pretty universal, youth in the North are more likely to be exposed sooner.
“Children in the North, we’ve seen, are getting involved in drugs at an earlier age,” he said, adding that this puts them at much higher risk for addiction and other mental health issues.
He also noted that the idea was to bring about “universal intervention,” meaning that it’s designed for entire classes, not just students with visible and known problems.
“Everyone can use this. Everyone can benefit from this,” he said.
Taylor said she’s happy to be a part of delivering the program and hopes it will be adopted across the Northwest Territories. Teachers agreed that a mental health program was sorely needed in their schools.
“It’s not so much a new or replacement program,” said Chief Sunrise Education Centre’s Ruth Stadelmayer. “It’s going beyond the curriculum.”
Misty Pynter, also with Chief Sunrise, said that although the material would have to be fit into the current courses, it was well worth the effort.
“Kids need to be okay mentally before they can learn anything,” she said.