Ask a friend how he’s feeling and you’ve opened the door to a conversation about mental health. It’s a simple yet effective strategy that could improve or save a life.
While people won’t hesitate to inquire about physical maladies such as broken bones and diseases, questions about mental well-being can be a cause of discomfort.
Jack.org is an organization created to help push through the stigma. It was founded in 2010 by a father whose son died by suicide in first-year university. His parents were blindsided and felt that if their son had had someone to talk to he would still be alive. Jack.org is a peer-to-peer network of young leaders who give their time to speak at schools across the country about their own struggles.
“We need to support each other,” said Nolan, 23, one of two Jack.org volunteers who spoke at SAC last week. They had been invited by members of Jack@SAC, a school chapter formed last year. The Rev. Bruce Roffey, Margaret Kirkby, Director of Health Services, and Keith Ramon, Sifton Housemaster, oversee the student-led group.
“We keep the group at an arm’s length, as it is meant to be by and for young people,” explained Mr. Roffey. The School’s psychologist, Michael Isaac, was asked to attend the presentation in case there was need for follow-up.
“Because we have a tendency to bury our emotions inside of us, the acceptance of mental health discussions is extremely important in an all-boys environment,” said Cameron Lawrence ’16, president of Jack@SAC.
Expressions such as ‘suck it up and be a man’ and labels like ‘crazy,’ ‘nuts,’ and ‘lazy,’ are hurtful and inhibit people from seeking the treatment they need, confirmed Shayan, the morning’s second speaker. Like Nolan, he too discovered something wasn’t right while in high school. Shayan said his reaction to stress was avoidance, which isolated him from family and friends and messed up his sleep so badly he found himself staying up all night and sleeping all day.
He eventually opened up to a friend when she asked ‘How are you doing? What’s bothering you?’ I realized that my friend and I were going through a lot of the same experiences and I wasn’t as alone as I thought. I could have avoided problems if only I had reached out,” he reflected.
He said friends aren’t expected to fix problems but can important sources of support and validation. A calming tone of voice and an ear to listen can make you an agent of change, said Shayan. “Change can make people uncomfortable, but that’s OK. Talking at an emotional level will get easier.”
At St. Andrew’s, the wall of silence is crumbling. Margaret Kirkby said there’s been a complete turnaround surrounding the topic of mental health in the last few years. When she started 16 years ago, “no one spoke about it.” She attributes the positive change to the School’s supportive administration and helpful faculty and staff who truly care. At one time boys would ask to go out the back door of her office to avoid embarrassment; nowadays they have no qualms about coming in themselves or bringing in a friend they are worried about, said Mrs. Kirkby.
With Jack@SAC, the conversation about mental health is certain to continue. Last month, students attended a Jack.org summit at Cresent School for independent schools in the GTA. A couple weeks ago, a film on the topic was shown. Earlier in the year, a few teachers brought in their dogs for a therapy session, and as students patted them they were given information and prizes for participating. And plans are afoot to have a fun presence during SpringSmash in May.