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A new tent will open this year at the Teddy Bears’ Picnic to treat the kind of booboos you can’t always see.

For the first time, psychologists will be camped out at the annual Assiniboine Park event for children and families to help stuffed animals and their owners address mental health issues such as anxiety.

<p>Dr. Tiffany Lippens (from left), Lyla Levy and Dr. Rehman Abdulrehman are part of a group from Clinic Psychology Manitoba to set up a “Worry Bear” tent at the Teddy Bear’s Picnic this year.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Dr. Tiffany Lippens (from left), Lyla Levy and Dr. Rehman Abdulrehman are part of a group from Clinic Psychology Manitoba to set up a “Worry Bear” tent at the Teddy Bear’s Picnic this year.

The Worry Bear tent will focus on mental health.

"This is a very positive and fun-filled event, but the reasons for this are quite serious," clinical psychologist Dr. Rehman Abdulrehman said.

"Seventy per cent of adult problems started during childhood and the most common are anxiety disorders."

At first, organizers balked at the name of the Worry Bear tent for the May 28 picnic.

"Some people were worried about the use of the (term)," Abdulrehman said. They said "worry" was too negative of a word and suggested "compassion bear" instead, he said.

"We felt very strongly that we need to use that word to normalize the experience of anxiety and to use the appropriate language," Abdulrehman said.

Anxiety disorders can cause excessive worrying or physical symptoms of panic that interfere with day-to-day living, Abdulrehman said.

In children, it can be harder to identify, he said.

"They can’t always articulate worries, so it shows up behaviourally."

School avoidance might be because of anxiety, he said.

Children may say they feel sick and describe physical symptoms, he said, such as, "my stomach hurts," or "my head hurts."

The Worry Bear tent will have small group presentations for children and parents who can learn how worry works, including "how it happens and easy ways to control it," Abdulrehman said.

They’ll talk about how to face fears and challenge negative thoughts.

"We give them tools for how to cope with panic," Abdulrehman explained.

"It’s child-friendly. Children tend to project difficulties onto their toys. We teach children ways to help their toys not feel as anxious or worried.

"Children internalize those strategies and it gives parents the tools to manage difficulties — they can watch and learn. That’s going to be a critical piece, with the families."

The Worry Bear tent’s team is made up of psychologists from Clinic Psychology Manitoba and its members will be wearing T-shirts with "Worry Doc" on them, said Abdulrehman, the clinic’s director and assistant professor in the department of clinical health psychology at the Max Rady College of Medicine.

"We often expect children to articulate really complex symptoms and feelings, but they don’t always have the language skills to do that early on," he said.

The idea is to teach them how to articulate those feelings and some techniques for dealing with them.

"We all know what to do when we get a cold — we don’t run to the doctor. We don’t know what to do if we have a panic attack or feel very anxious," Abdulrehman said.

"Anxiety is the common cold of mental health disorders and we still don’t know what to do when it comes to that," he added.

Panic attacks happen when the body kicks into fight or flight mode, a response that’s very normal but may occur at the wrong time.

Teaching children how to do "belly breathing" helps physically reduce their anxiety.

Colouring sheets are another tool the Worry Bear tent will use to help kids identify when they feel anxiety.

The psychologist created the character "whatif," a green cloud that’s a physical representation of worry and anxiety that hangs over their head whenever they’re feeling anxious.

"We are going to be using this to allow children to identify a problem, to make it less associated with themselves and also to help both parents and children have a target," Abdulrehman said.

"The goal is to shrink the whatif to a smaller size. The more they engage in the healthy strategies of challenging worries, facing our fears and belly breathing, the smaller and less interfering the whatif becomes."

The Worry Bear tent is a new means of providing mental information to the public, Abdulrehman said.

"A lot of people don’t have access to a mental health practitioner or psychologist. It used to be stigma was the barrier. Now it’s access," he said.

Public services are limited, which means "it takes a long time to get in," Abdulrehman said.

Cost and lack of insurance coverage can prevent access to private services for psychologists.

"Every year mental health problems cost the economy $50 billion," the clinical psychologist said.

"They talk about talk therapy being expensive, but they’re not looking at the impact it’s having on society. 70 per cent of adults had difficulties start during childhood and their teen years," Abdulrehman said.

Like any illness, the sooner it’s treated, the better, he said.

"You can prevent those patterns from developing into ongoing difficulty," he said.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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