It Takes a Village to Support Kids' Mental Health

By Karin Konstanynowicz

     Just before the start of the new school year, UBC hosted Summer Institute 2013: Promoting Mental Health in BC Schools offering participants a wealth of inspiring stories and valuable information.

     From a moving and heart-felt account of how a school and a community created a village of support for a young boy with anxiety, to the painful experiences of a mother navigating the mental health system with her son, all these stories packed a powerful punch. 

     So did the speakers.  The first keynote came from the acclaimed developmental and clinical psychologist, Gordon Neufeld . I was especially taken by what he had to say about resilience. As Neufeld pointed out, all research shows it is play that builds brains, not work. Play is something that is spontaneous and can’t be forced. But play can’t happen, unless children can rest and feel safe.  And that, in turn, can’t happen unless a child, or an adult, for that matter, fully feels their feelings.  Neufeld refers to this as “soft hearts”. He believes children aren’t bouncing back because they don’t experience their own vulnerability.  He talked about the importance of attachment and the critical roles adults have in engaging and protecting children.  He encouraged us all to think about creating a village of attachment in our schools and communities.  

     His talk was followed by examples of schools and communities that have embraced and created connected communities.  One great example came from Dr. Robert Lees from Chilliwack who talked about an awareness programme, the Youth as Gatekeepers.

     Another keynote speaker was Kevin Cameron, the executive director of the Canadian Center for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response . He’s regularly called into crisis situations such as the school shootings at Taber and Sandy Hook.  It’s easy to see why he’s the kind of person you would want in traumatic situations. When Cameron goes into a crisis, he spends time looking at how the system operates. He says a natural open system is a functional system.  And kids need to be connected to functional adults.  An open system creates a good flow of information and naturally drives people into open communication. Cameron believes the better the data we collect, the better the assessment; the better the assessment, the better the intervention.  And the foundation of good data always depends on good questions. 

     The next day keynote came from Dr. Stan Kutcher , Chair of Adolescent Mental Health at Dalhousie University.  An internationally known expert, Kutcher walked everyone through the incredibly complex nature of diagnosis and treatment.  Mental health problems don’t come from a simple cause, he said.  They develop over time, are incredibly complex to deal with, and there is no magic one-size-fits- all solution.  Both the diagnosis and treatment require great discernment.  

     Lynn Green, former CEO of the Dalai Lama Center, wrapped up the two-day event by talking about some of the projects the Center is involved in such as the Heart Mind Inquiry at Frog Hollow.  Seeing the involvement of a whole community in promoting compassion and caring in children, really reminded everyone there that it does take the entire village to create true mental health.

     When the term “mental health” is tossed out, we mostly think of problems without actually saying it. But what makes us mentally healthy? What are the qualities of good mental health?  The Summer Institute made visible some of those characteristics—resilience, vulnerability, attachment and, certainly, community.  In leaving UBC, I came away with the idea that each one of us plays a critical role in creating mentally healthy communities.

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