Louise Brown, ParentCentral.ca: They come to the guidance counsellor with headaches and tears and insomnia and nerves and grades dragged down by the expectations that weigh on their teenaged shoulders.
In one of the most academically high-octane schools in Canada, the epidemic of student stress reported by one in three Ontario students has reached a point staff no longer can ignore.
Concerned at the growing number of students diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety disorders — and more who seem headed that way, especially in Grade 9 — North Toronto Collegiate has launched an unusual program to teach teens how to handle the stress thrust on them by parents, the school system, and themselves.
Through lunch workshops in meditation and kick-boxing, laughter therapy and yoga and even listening to new-age music played on crystals, the school is trying to teach kids what guidance head Michelle de Braux calls “the fourth R — relaxation.”
In this final week of exams, such new skills are being put to the test.
“We’re a high-achieving school — Type-A Personalities Welcome Here!” — but we’ve seen a gradual increase in symptoms of stress from low grades and difficulty attending school to panic attacks in class, crying, even suicidal ideation,” said de Braux.
“We want to change the school culture and teach students the strategies that help them cope with stress. And next year we want to start talking to parents about letting students spread high school over five years to lower the workload and give them time to take the courses that bring them joy, because stress seems to have grown worse since we dropped Grade 13.”
Worried about the number of students suffering from clinical anxiety and depression, de Braux and social worker Jeanne Middlebrook launched a series of “stress-buster” workshops before midterm exams last fall, bringing in consultants to teach students yoga, kick-boxing and “guided imagery” where they imagined themselves opening an exam and actually being excited because they knew all the answers.
When students called for more, de Braux hired the Youth Wellness Network consultants in May — another stressful month — to run a week of lunchtime workshops in meditation, laughter therapy, dance, tai chi and the “sound escape” of listening to music played on crystals.
“I attended the class in meditation and really liked it,” said Grade 10 student Sabina Wex, “because it teaches you to focus on your body and recognize when you’re getting stressed — with me, my jaw clenches and I get headaches and my back hurts.”
Student mental health has become a hot-button issue. A new provincial coalition of mental health experts and educators wants more support for schools to be an issue in the fall election. R.H. King Academy in Scarborough ran a series of spring yoga workshops that drew 40 Grade 12 students. The Toronto District School Board will interview candidates Thursday for the new position of Coordinator for Mental Health and Well-being.
“The latest study by CAMH showed 36 per cent of Ontario students feel stress, which is concerning, if not alarming,” said social worker David Johnston, the board’s senior manager of professional support services. “In part it’s the social stress of being in this age group, made even worse with social media, and the new four-year curriculum is also quicker and faster-paced. The good news is, 24 per cent of students now reach out for help, twice as many as 10 years ago.”
The bad news? Schools don’t have twice the services.
North Toronto plans to fundraise next year to be able to bring in stress-busting experts like the Youth Wellness Network year-round and may even make a day of stress-busting workshops compulsory next year. Network founder Michael Eisen speaks to students about how to avoid exam stress by taking a break every hour and focus on the joy of learning, not the pressure of the end result.
North Toronto has created a student wellness committee for which more than 20 students have signed up, and will run a stress-busting leadership camp the last week of August to train committee leaders.
To social worker Jeanne Middlebrook, these are lessons as crucial as the curriculum.
“It’s about balance; it’s a soft skill, knowing to get enough sleep and proper nutrition, but it can be taught — and it can be modelled.”