Be well: A campaign on mental health

By Shawn McKillop, APR

Credit: Shawn McKillop, APR

Editor’s Note: It is an issue that has been drowning in stigma for a lifetime; now it is finally starting to get its head above water. Mental health is a topic many like to bury in the sand and not talk about. Probably because our culture is prone to want a quick fix, and when it comes to mental health, that doesn’t necessarily happen. The best thing we can do is normalize mental health, talk about it openly and create culture in our schools that embrace the issue and face it head on.

That’s what happened in the Grand Erie District School Board in Southwestern Ontario. A medium-sized district with 26,000 students in 75 schools (that’s medium-sized?!), the district borders a section along the shores of Lake Erie and is home to Canada’s largest populated Indigenous Reservation. Shawn McKillop, APR, who serves as the manager of communications and community relations, along with his colleagues, addressed the topic head-on in a campaign that gives students the tools and resources they need to Be Well.

Mental health is neutral. Like physical or dental health, mental health can be both positive and negative. There’s no shame in visiting the doctor when you have a cold or the dentist when you have a toothache. So why is there a stigma associated with seeking mental health services when someone is struggling?

Think about how you care for your own mental health. How do you deal with life’s stresses and anxieties? Some may go for a run, walk their dog, read a book, or hang out with friends. What happens when these coping strategies don’t work? What happens when you experience trauma, or when life’s darkest clouds linger overhead?

Life begins to break down, and it impacts your relationships, your work productivity, and your overall well-being.

Now think about what students go through.

In Ontario, one in five students struggle with their mental health. In my school district, it’s one in four. Building suicide-safer school communities is a priority. In an attempt to support students living with mental illness, and to create school cultures of wellness, the Be Well campaign was initiated.

The campaign explores four themes that simplify the complexity of mental health: Don’t Wait, Connect, Recharge and Reach Out.

The themes help students know where to get help when in crisis, and identify signs when others may need support. It gives students the tools to assess their own states of wellness, and to learn the power of relationships, conversations, and connections — the greatest factors in suicide prevention.

Students and staff responded to this campaign with open arms.

With an online presence, posters in schools, student-led events, meetings with staff and students, and a social media contest, #GEBeWell came to life and continues to raise awareness.

Positive mental health and well-being are essential for student success. It’s up to us as communicators to advocate for student well-being before tragedy strikes. When we teach students the skills they need to cope with stress and help recharge their personal batteries, we’re imparting essential life skills.

Schools are safe havens, and communications is the light that guides our students home. When we see our roles as being agents to deliver wellness and to inspire hope, we’re doing our part in heroic work that saves lives.

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