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It Takes a Village

by Megan Hunter ASEBP | August 17 2017

One of my favourite things about being an ASEBP workplace wellness liaison is the opportunity to collaborate with wellness champions and other health advocates in Alberta’s school jurisdictions. Each May, Alberta Health Services (AHS) Zone 4 hosts a wellness conversation spearheaded by Lorna Muise, an AHS wellness powerhouse and fellow Sandbox blogger. This inspirational day brings leaders in school employee wellness across central Alberta together to share their school’s stories and collaborate with one another for future success.

Speaking of inspiration, Dr. Jody Carrington (a psychologist who focuses on relationships, self-care and community support) and Darlene Ferris (Director of Wellness and Human Services for Wild Rose School Division) have developed a holistic model of psychological support for the education sector. I had the great pleasure of interviewing these two incredible women to walk us through their model. 

Spoiler alert: It takes an entire village to get this model working at optimal force.

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Megan: At the Zone 4 sharing conversation keynote, you mentioned that you and Dr. Carrington were working on a specific project together. Can you tell me a bit more about your project?

Darlene: Over the past few years, school divisions across this country have recognized the need to gain further insight into the mental health of students and staff. There is a wide-spread understanding that there is a need for common language infrastructure, protocols and role clarity not only in our province but within our country to address the significant mental health concerns we are facing. Academic learning and teaching abilities become inaccessible to students and staff who are emotionally unavailable.

Jody: Over the past two years—and in collaboration with a number of school divisions across Alberta—we have developed a Divisional Wellness Model proposal on how (and why) to create a structured wellness team within the hierarchy of their school divisions. The model is based on an understanding that through the relationships children have with their caregivers and their teachers, they begin to develop the “story” of themselves and others around them. When children have "anchors" in place, they have a much greater chance of developing into healthy, regulated and competent learners. Similarly, when staff are able to do this for each other, incredible and resilient teams come together. In a model designed with this in mind, we hope to assist school divisions across our province—and this country—in addressing the significant mental health challenges our students and our educators are facing.

M: The focus on relationships and layered support is apparent. How do you see this playing out in a school jurisdiction?

D: There is (and needs to be) a hierarchy that exists in our school divisions when we are considering how we operate administratively. What we’ve come to believe, however, is that when we are talking about the relationships with our students, their families and our staff, hierarchy no longer becomes as necessary. Creating an opportunity for all of us involved to teach and support students and their families to “speak the same language” becomes critical if we are going to transform the way we assist everyone in this ever-changing and disconnected world. Further to that, our hope is to build expertise into each of our divisions—some divisions are now calling this the “Wellness Team,” often made up of Family School Wellness staff—around trauma-informed practices that will serve to allow consultation and direction on some of our most challenging students and their families. 

M: This sounds amazing! How can the comprehensive school health community (school leaders, employees and community partners) support this sustainable model?

J: We love that you used the word “sustainable” because that is key, from our perspective, to creating lasting change. We think it is critical to include all aspects of the hierarchy—parents/caregivers, executive assistants and support staff, teachers, wellness teams, school leadership teams, administration and trustees—in creating a common language about mental health and trauma, then focusing specifically on creating capacity within the wellness team in each division to sustain and support the needs of their respective division. It has been well-received so far and we are looking forward to working with jurisdictions in this “pilot” process to learn more about what works most effectively in practice.

M: Where can we find more information?

D: If you have any thoughts or ideas on our project, Jody and I both welcome your feedback. Leave a comment below and we would be happy to send you our proposal for divisional wellness!  

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I hope all of you are as inspired as I was by Jody and Darlene’s points on mental health and wellness within the work/school setting. Tell us in the comments below if you have any other insight into this topic—we’d love to hear your input!

Dr. Jody Carrington and Darlene Ferris

Megan Hunter

With more than 10 years promoting healthy living through recreation, fitness and play within Canada, the U.S. and Europe, Megan is one of ASEBP’s workplace wellness liaison superheroes! A unicorn among unicorns, our resident ray of sunshine leaves rainbows in her wake and knows that there is no unsuitable place to demonstrate appropriate handstand technique—only unsuitable attire.