In May, over 100 students from secondary schools across the Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) took part in the first-ever Student Wellness Conference.

Organized by WRDSB’s Mental Health Lead, Gwenyth Le-Phuong, the theme of the conference was “Be Kind to Your Mind”.

The event brought together students, staff and community partners at The Family Centre in Kitchener for a day focused on providing students with the information and resources they need to support their mental health and well-being.

“Mental health is something that affects everyone. Students have told us loud and clear that they are concerned about the mental health challenges they are facing, and they want the board to do more to address these challenges,” said Le-Phuong.

“The intention behind the Student Wellness Conference is to provide students with the knowledge and tools to not only support their own mental health, but also to share this information with other students at their schools,” said Le-Phuong.

A Day About Wellness

WRDSB Student Trustee Vaishnave Raina and Student Trustee-Elects Abdullah Awan and Casper Dong acted as MCs for the day. Students were also greeted by Director of Education jeewan chanicka, who has been open about his own mental health journey.

To get the day started in the right frame of mind, students were led through a grounding exercise by Muslim Social Services and former WRDSB student Takunda Mahere. They then participated in an icebreaker game to get to know each other.

Next, students heard from two Indigenous keynote speakers, WRDSB alumni Victoria Young and Alex Gordon. Victoria and Alex shared their individual stories about their mental health journies, and how they found support while in school through child and youth workers and Indigenous social workers.

Following the keynote speeches, students broke into groups to attend two workshops on a variety of topics, including procrastination, resilience, and gaming and mental health.

In the Procrastination workshop, over 25 students and staff filled the room to learn more from the WRDSB’s Psychologist, Anna Polotskaia and Dave Klassen. The team engaged the students and staff in a conversation around the reasons why we procrastinate, how it affects our lives and our mental health, and provided a four-step plan on how to recognize and deal with it in our everyday lives.

In the Gaming and Mental Health workshop, students had an open discussion with WRDSB social worker Brian Douglas about the reasons why they play video games, how it benefits their lives, and how boundary-setting can be a good thing. Douglas provided some tips on how to manage screen time in a positive way.

Taking What They Learned Back to Their Schools

After the workshops and lunch, students reconvened as one large group to hear from the Student Wellness Team at Kitchener Collegiate Institute (KCI) about their experience establishing their team, and how students at other schools can build their own thriving Wellness Teams.

The desire for school-based, student-led mental health committees, or “Student Wellness Teams”, came up during the WRDSB’s last Student Roundtable, which brought students together to address a number of issues across the board.

“[At the Student Roundtable] the biggest thing we heard was that they wanted to establish a mental health committee within their own schools,” said Raina, who served as Student Trustee this year along with Kenzy Soror. “This conference will give students the resources and support needed to create mental health committees in their own schools.”

At KCI, the Student Wellness Team organizes “Wellness Wednesdays”, and other events focused on mental health.

KCI Wellness Team members Tabasom Faez and Ridha Shaheen Shahul Hameed

KCI Wellness Team members Tabasom Faez and Ridha Shaheen Shahul Hameed

At the Student Wellness Conference, KCI students Tabasom Faez and Ridha Shaheen Shahul Hameed attended workshops on Indigenous mental health, led by WRDSB Indigenous Social Worker Amanda Thompson, and fostering resiliency through a spiritual lense, presented by Muslim Social Services.

“It was really nice, and it gave us ideas for our Wellness Club at our school,” said Shaheen Shahul Hameed.

Breaking the Stigma and Fostering a Sense of Community

Preston High School students Jagger Lefave, Meidi Seeneevassen and Lelia Faouk Al-Aadah

L-R: Preston High School students Jagger Lefave, Meidi Seeneevassen and Lelia Faouk Al-Aadah

The first Student Wellness Conference gave students and staff an opportunity to connect with each other, speak openly about mental health, and create a sense of community amongst each other.

“I’ve struggled with my mental health, and I’ve thought I’m the only one, and that’s not true,” said Raina. “That’s why these conferences are so wonderful, because you get to connect yourself with peers who think the same way as you do and you get to kind of create your own little family and you can go to them for help.”

Students found having familiar faces from their own schools helped them feel more comfortable connecting with the wider group.

“You know when you feel comfortable with [your friends], and the stuff you shared during the club, you feel comfortable meeting other people too at this amazing event,” said Faez.

As Director chanicka said to the crowd in his morning address, “the answers are with you,” and the Student Wellness Conference helped students connect with each other to find those answers together.