My dad was the kind of person who went out of his way to help people and be there for them—and that was especially true when it came to me, my little sister and my mom.
To him, family was everything, and—whether he was helping me with math, going on one of my Girl Guide trips, taking me sailing or just hanging out at home eating sushi and listening to music—he had a way of making me feel safe and loved. So, needless to say, when he passed away when I was 12, it turned my whole world upside down.
I’d always been a strong student (thanks, in part, to the study habits my dad taught me)… but, suddenly, I couldn’t focus. My marks dropped and so did my attendance. My social life suffered too. My friends, who used to be my main source of support, started to seem like one more thing I needed to worry about. After awhile, I couldn’t stand being asked how I was feeling or if I needed anything. I didn’t want to talk about it, so I’d tell them everything was fine—which was a lie. I needed some space and time to reflect and adjust, but without meaning to, I pushed some of my closest friends away.
Meanwhile, at home, my family was struggling. Day after day, it got harder to be in the house where we’d shared so many memories with my dad. Two years after he died, we ended up moving to get a fresh start.
During that time, I also struggled with anxiety and depression. Talking to a counsellor helped but strangely enough, one of the things that ended up helping me the most was helping others.
Last fall, my school signed up for Healthy Schools Certification run by a group called Ophea, which supports school health. Healthy Schools is a process where schools choose a health topic to focus on, then follow some steps and work with community partners to plan activities. Our school chose to focus on mental health and the stigma around it. Working with eight other students on the senior Healthy Schools Committee, I started planning activities for other students.
During the year, we had guest speakers come in to talk about mental health. We also made posters with tips about how to deal with things like stress and anxiety and where to get support, and we hung them around the school.
One time, we made a thousand paper cranes with help from the art classes. Students wrote down a worry on a crane’s wing. Then we hung them all up in the atrium. The idea was to “let your worries fly away.” People could walk underneath and read what was written on the wings… and when they did, they could see that—whether it was exams, applying for university or relationship problems—lots of people were worrying about the same stuff they were. They weren’t alone.
When exam time came around, we organized to have therapy dogs come in. The students loved petting the puppies and it went a long way to relieve their stress.
Then, during National Mental Health Week in May, we ran activities every day at lunch. There was karaoke, playing with cards, and even seeing who could build the tallest freestanding tower out of toothpicks and gummy bears.
I loved running the events and participating in them. I got to meet so many students (especially a lot of grade nines) who I wouldn’t otherwise have met. They were shy at first, but opened up over time. Knowing that they felt like they could trust me and talk to me meant a lot. It also helped me to remember that I wasn’t the only person who’d lost a parent, or the only one who suffered from anxiety or had issues at home.
When it comes to mental health, people are often afraid to speak up and ask for help, but through the Healthy Schools Certification, I was able to help make my high school a place that felt welcoming to everyone, and where students were much more open to talking about mental health issues.
My dad was one of the most caring and hardworking people I’ve ever met. His effort and dedication allowed him to accomplish everything he set his mind on, and I know that it’s thanks to his influence that, this fall, I’m heading to the University of Waterloo (my dream university!) where I’ll be studying chemical engineering.
My father is the person who inspired me to be who I am right now and who showed me that, with hard work, everything is possible. He also showed me by example how important it is to help others… so, in a way, it’s kind of fitting that reaching out to others is a big part of what eventually helped me to move on, while still holding his memory close.
I won’t be there next year, but I really hope my high school will continue to do Healthy Schools Certification. Actually, I think all schools should participate. It’s such a great way to make a positive change, and you never know how helping someone else might help you too.