Last month, students at Vegreville Composite High hosted the Elk Island Public School’s first Headstrong Summit, a day-long mental health awareness initiative.
The purpose of the event was to teach students that talking about mental health is important and that it is their responsibility to reach out if they see someone else or if they themselves are struggling.
Evangeline Zak, a 21-year old from Calgary, was the keynote speaker for the event, telling the students her story about dealing with mental health issues. Other speakers from the area were invited to come and share their own stories with the students as well.
Brad Dahr is the co-founder of an organization called COME2LIFE, which deals with youth emotional health. He was one of the speakers that came to tell his story about struggling with loss and how that affected him.
"In about 2012, I started really to experience depression and reached out, got some support over the phone. Because of what they were sharing with me, I decided to kind of have a life change. I started to become more active and overall tried to increase my health and wellness," said Dahr. "Then along the way, because of what I was learning through a variety of circumstances, ended up co-founding this youth emotional health work."
One of Dahr's team members, 15-year old Susan Windels, also shared her story about feeling isolated and lonely when her sister, who used to be extremely close to her, distanced herself. Windels also experienced the loss of some grandparents around the same time.
"I didn't really talk to people a whole lot and I wasn't very open. I just started hiding things and got into some bad habits and addictions to hours of video and such that I knew my parents wouldn't like. So I just started hiding everything. Then through several different things, one of the main things being a mission trip to the Philippines, I started reaching out and getting some help and just rebuilding that self-esteem that I had completely destroyed with shame."
The pair said that one of their biggest messages they were trying to drive home at the summit was that the students were not alone and to speak out. Many people experiencing mental health problems are either too afraid to tell someone or don't believe anyone will listen. They encouraged students to use crisis lines, talk to school councillors, or even talk to a teacher that they trust.
"Everybody experiences things that really knock them off their feet at least once in their life. So there is no shame in talking about it," said Dahr.
After students listened to the speakers they were given a chance to ask any questions that they had. Then they were put into small groups where they began to plan ways that they could contribute to building mental health awareness and support in their own community. The hope is to empower youth within schools to keep the message going themselves.

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