The Marc Garneau CI galleria was filled with chatter as students milled about at lunch on 8 May, admiring and appreciating the Mental Health Awareness Exhibition set up by the Mental Health Initiative (MHI) of MGCI.

The Mental Health Initiative, co-founded in September by Khadija Aziz and Khandakar A Hasan, is a relatively new project at MGCI that aims to raise awareness about the subject of mental health. Its purpose is to educate the students of MGCI and members of the surrounding neighbourhoods regarding the people they can contact and seek help.

Organized by the members of MHI, the Mental Health Awareness Exhibition’s goal was to not only raise awareness of the mental health issues that impact teenagers, it was to also provide students with accessible resources and information that can aid them in achieving the guidance and assistance that they need.

“Last year I found out that in Ontario, the first week of May is Children’s Mental Health Awareness week and realized that our school didn’t celebrate it. As such, I decided to have an exhibit where internal organizations can display booths, offer brochures, and chat with students. The art exhibition was introduced to encourage student involvement as well,” said Grade 12 Khadija Aziz, president of MHI.

A display of mental health related art.  Photo: Jenna Wong

A display of mental health related art.
Photo: Jenna Wong

Khandakar A Hasan, vice-president of MHI, felt that this was a good way of getting help to those who required it. “We had a school wide survey that got over 200 responses, many of which were asking for better ways to deal with mental health. As such, we wanted to help raise awareness. I know people with mental diseases, and I feel that it is important to go into our school community and to make people more aware of this important issue,” he said.

The online survey, which began in October, asks several questions regarding what things people find stressful, how they react to stress, and how they handle stress, as well as ways in which MGCI can help them deal with their problems.

Besides the online survey, MHI also stressed the importance of using art as an outlet. “Many people can use art to express mental issues. In this case, many other alternatives would not have worked. Poetry, for example, has room for misinterpretation, but it isn’t easy to misinterpret art, so we wanted people to use this to express themselves,” said Khandakar.

Khadija also felt that art, as a universal language, allows people to get involved. “We wanted to use art so that people could express themselves. As well, the art pieces that were submitted are essentially landscapes of people’s minds, in which they’ve drawn “maps” of their brains and have doodled whatever they feel. We have also held previous workshops where students were taught art journaling, and where creative writing styles were discussed so people could write and draw and have people look at it at the same time. We’ve taught them how to write so no one else can understand what they’ve written, and they have used this to express themselves openly, while still keeping their thoughts private,” she said.

Brochures were handed out to inform students of available resources.  Photo: Jenna Wong

Brochures were handed out to inform students of available resources.
Photo: Jenna Wong

In addition to the art, MHI also had plenty of brochures for students. The brochure, titled “Help Resources in MGCI,” provided a myriad of online websites, people, or places that students could visit or contact in order to deal with any significant challenges that they may be facing.

While it included the usual resources, such as Student Success and Student Services, the MHI brochure also provided alternatives within Marc Garneau that few students know about. One of these options is Focus on Success, a drop-in center and resource program in the school that is designed to support students who are dealing with social, emotional or behavioural challenges that are negatively affecting their life.

“Your mental state is the engine you need to be able to function. We aim to aid certain youth in dealing with the issues that they face. Anyone, however, can come to us to address any challenges, from dealing with relationship problems to finding a job. Essentially, it is a life-skills program, and we try to provide students with the help they need to be successful in life,” said Ms. Poulos, who runs Focus on Success and can be reached on the second floor of the school.

Khadija stressed the importance of the students of MGCI having access to these resources, because according to her research, “More students at MGCI should be seeking help than there are right now. This event was also to get rid of the notion that having an unhealthy mental health makes one “crazy” or a “drama queen.” It is meant to hopefully normalize such stigmas and to encourage students to take actions to support their mental wellbeing. I hope this exhibit makes people feel more comfortable and knowledgable to seek support from friends, families and authorities.”

MHI’s survey can be found and completed here.