Priority number one: mental health!
Back in fall 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic brought mental health issues to the forefront, UTS was asked to zero in on one priority focus for its Healthy School Certification process through the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association (OPHEA).
“We choose to take a deep dive on mental health this year,” says Kris Ewing, the UTS Wellness Supervisor (and also Department Coordinator for Health and Physical Education), “after everyone – students, staff, our administration and parents, and Andrei and Mia, our 2019-20 student captains – identified it as a priority issue.”
Wellness is a process
The OPHEA Certification is not so much an end goal as the beginning of an ongoing cyclical process, which looks at the needs of our school, develops a plan, and sets out metrics to monitor, reflect and evaluate our efforts, and then a new cycle begins.
“We are taking a whole-school approach,” says Kris, “by building wellness into our school so it becomes ingrained in our social and physical environment, in our curriculum and teaching, policies and community partnerships, so our approach is consistent and sustainable for the future.”
When COVID-19 hit, UTS already had its Healthy Schools Team in place, with staff leadership from Kris and Dr. Nancy Dawe, the Interim Head of Student Support, along with a comprehensive action plan and a number of initiatives underway.
“We have room to grow,” says Nancy, “but we have amazing leaders to help us get there.”
It takes a community to be well
It takes a community to foster wellness, and at UTS, staff, students, parents and community partners united in a true community effort to help our school raise the bar this year and earn the gold standard from OPHEA’s Healthy Schools Certification Program. For UTS’ second year in the program, it marked a step up from the bronze the school received for the 2018-19 school year. While the last two years have focused on the Healthy Schools Certification, Kris says the UTS wellness program is “big, deep and complex” and has been 14 years in the making, and increasingly collaborative, especially with students.
“UTS has such strong student voices on wellness. We rely very much on their leadership to help guide us,” says Kris.
The UTS Student Wellness Team of 2019-20 (left to right): Miranda (S6), Kyra (S5), Kris Ewing (staff supervisor), Megan (S5), Joanna (S5) and Audrey (S6)
Students are a driving force
S5 (Grade 11) student Kyra Menezes saw the pressures her peers were facing and wanted to help, so she joined the Student Wellness Committee in M4 (Grade 10), and now she’s on the executive, helping lead initiatives for 30 students who take part in the committee.
“UTS can be a competitive and difficult place to be in sometimes,” she says. “A lot of students are really high-achieving and put a lot of pressure on themselves so it’s really important that students are able to think about their wellness and mental health during school.”
When students run the events for other students, they feel more connected and represented in mental health policies and decisions at UTS, she adds.
Created by students for students
Students were the driving force behind a school-wide mental health survey, which is being analyzed with the support of adolescent psychiatrists from the University of Toronto. They also created a student wellness website to centralize wellness resources within the school such as the UTS Student Wellness Team, Student Council Mental Health Panel, the UTS Chapter of Jack.org, an organization that trains and empowers young leaders on mental health, as well as how to access UTS Mental Health Support. The website also serves up tips on how to relax through COVID-19, links to yoga videos and more.
Throughout the school year, student groups organize many events that keep wellness on the student agenda, such as the UTS “Let’s Talk” day (modelled after the Bell Let’s Talk initiative), the 12 Days of Kindness before the December holidays and wellness education for the F2 (Grade 8) students.
UTS mental health teams handed out biodots to the entire school for Mental Health Week as a visual reminder to encourage students and staff to always think about their wellness and mental health.
Take health on the road with you to success
“This year has been tough,” says Kris, “but it’s highlighted for all of our students the importance of healthy active living to their high-achieving goals and fueling that partnership. Your health can’t be on the back burner. It has to be on the road with you to success.”
As for wellness at-large, a general wellness website was also launched for students, alumni and families, so everyone has the mental health resources they need at their fingertips.
Staff Take Care + Tabata
For staff, Kris curated a Take Care site, which shared a wealth of resources aimed at helping staff take care of themselves through COVID-19 uncertainty – from ideas for screen-time relief to mindfulness apps to Tabata workouts. Also, during COVID-19, many teachers gathered online for weekly ‘walkabouts’ led by Dr. Cresencia Fong, the Head of Teacher Learning, Technology, and Research, which gave voice to the challenges they faced while learning new technologies in a fun, informal way.
The commitment to mental wellness extends to the UTS Parents’ Association (UTSPA), which in the last year hosted workshops such as Mindful Parenting – Resilient Children and Child Resilience During COVID.
Partnerships beyond the school, with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and Toronto Public Health, further strengthen the school’s wellness process.
The gold certification is not a destination, but a guiding light to show we are on the right path, as UTS’ journey of wellness continues.
“We’ve come a long way, but we still need to dig deeper,” says Kris, adding that one of the best ways to do this is greater collaboration with student groups. “We know collective leadership helps us have more positive impact in times of challenge and change.”