Student-led initiative opens new conversations on mental health

Gordon So // Western News

King’s University College student Adam Newton, along with classmates Katie Hart, Josh Hanna and Rylan Waring, grew a class project into an award-winning program meant to provide young people with an interactive educational experience as it relates to mental health and illness.

A fourth-year Psychology project for four King’s University College students made such waves in the community, it recently earned the 2015 Champion of Mental Health Award from the Canadian Mental Health Association.

PEARS (Psychological Education, Awareness and Reduction of Stigma), started by Adam Newton, Katie Hart, Josh Hanna and Rylan Waring, is a program meant to provide young people with an interactive educational experience as it relates to mental health and illness. It launched a year ago, and, so far, has been implemented in community groups in London, at King’s, as well as a secondary school within the Brant Haldimand Norfolk Catholic District School Board.

“It’s a seven-module program that looks at mental health and mental illness, very generally, and talks about stigma, positive mental health, stress and coping,” Newton said. “It addresses specific mental health disorders and ends in a community awareness project for whoever is involved.”

Each module contains a lesson plan with both content and experiential learning activities, all based on interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed research.

“It’s targeted toward high school students and maps well onto the Grades 11-12 curricula, as well as onto community organizations as sensitivity training for their staff,” he added.

PEARS aims to generate awareness and give youth a tangible understanding of their own mental health and that of others.

“There are a couple different gaps to address,” Newton noted. “A lot of organizations don’t have specific mental health training and, along with that, in the community, we always hear of the issue of mental health stigma and what surrounds it, and it acts as a barrier to seeking help.”

He continued, “Talking to teachers, they felt the current curriculum and lesson plans they were given to address the mental health unit were largely inadequate. They weren’t sure how to tackle it. This program – at least in the school (it was in) – gave those teachers a really strong lesson plan, activities and content videos to better teach the unit.”

Hart added, “We’ve heard really good things from the leadership conference at King’s, too. A lot of the students liked the discussions we had – it was very open and a lot of topics were covered that aren’t always covered in classrooms, or talked about between students on a regular basis. It was nice to open up that dialogue.”

What separates PEARS from similar initiatives is it goes beyond providing information, Newton explained. For long-term benefits, a mental health awareness initiative needs to engage its audience in a tangible way.

“When you just provide information, when your goal is to change an attitude, it works in the short term. In order to have those long-term changes, you need to establish that there is an issue and provide information, but also give the individual contact with the attitude, whether that’s direct contact with individuals struggling with mental illness or activities that personalize the experience of stigma. Those are the kinds of things that lead to a long-term positive change in attitude,” he said.

The other benefit and distinctive feature of PEARS, Hart noted, is it is not prescriptive and can be adapted by the group, using it to suit its individual needs. Not all seven modules need to be completed, so if the group, or workplace, needs training on something specific, as in stress management, they can proceed with that one, even though it comes third in the list.

Long-term goals for PEARS include continued partnership in London, establishing more connections, and, hopefully, an entry into the Thames Valley District School Board within the year.