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Grade 8 boys organize mental health day at Rosedale P. S.
March 6, 2015
By Simone Joseph

For six Thornhill boys, mental health is not a mystery ... it is a mission.

The Grade 8 students from Rosedale Heights Public School organized a mental health conference Feb. 25 at their school.

“What we wanted to do is bring support, create awareness ... provide a coping strategy and information to help people cope with mental health,” said Ben Shane, an event organizer.

The conference, called Finding a Voice in the Early Teen Years, offered workshops on topics including: anxiety in the early teen years, eating disorders, youth talking to youth, drugs and addiction, nutrition, staying fit and an all-girl workshop on barriers to support in dealing with teen depression.

Each of the student organizers had his own reasons for wanting to arrange a conference.

“I want to take away layers of stigma,” said Matthew Krestell.

Other organizers included Edan Menahem, Noah Westreich, Ryan Krupat and Ritchie DiMaria. They are all part of a school group called Leaders of Tomorrow Today (LTT).

Principal Arthur Birenbaum developed this model because he saw a need.

Grade 8 is tough, he said. It is pivotal because you are figuring out who you are.

“The goal is to make role models, peer mentors,” Birenbaum said.

He and teacher Michael Ricci both used to work at Forest Run P.S.

Ricci ran a similar program for two years there and decided to bring the program to Rosedale in this, his first year at the school.

Student organizers were chosen for their leadership qualities, Ricci said.

“I love the way my little guys look at them (the student organizers). They are role models,” said Anna Novak, a Grade 1 teacher.

The group builds skills such as spoken and written communication. The conference is the group’s main project.

As the boys transition to high school, it is a good time to strengthen these skills, says Ricci, who leads the group along with Novak.

Four student organizers made speeches during the conference. One lamented the fact that while we, as a society, are comfortable talking about physical ailments, mental health is still stigmatized.

The group brought in guest speakers and experts and invited students from six local schools.

“It was an amazing moment to see the boys so confident,” Ricci said.

Rosedale’s student organizers wrote to the Ministry of Education asking for a $1,000 grant to organize and run the conference and the government did provide the funds.

The biggest skill learned in planning this event?

“Not being shy,” said Noah Westreich, who says he feels more confident since starting the program. “It was challenging at the beginning,” he said.

A social worker from Jewish Family & Child services visits the school on average once per week, but Birenbaum says: “it is difficult to get kids to talk because of the stigma”.

Prior to the conference, one student spoke about being treated differently because of a mental health diagnosis and wanting to be treated like anyone else.

A group of Grade 8 boys and girls at Rosedale will now talk to students in Grades 1 to 5 about what they learned from the conference.

Planning the event has been a boost for the student organizers.

“This has been a gift for them,” Birenbaum said. “This has done a world of good for them. Their marks have gone up. It has made a world of difference for them as people. I am really proud of them.”

Novak also saw a change. “It was amazing to see the transformation in confidence week to week.”