The bell rings and hallways clear out at Sargent Park School as kids scurry to first period. In teacher Sue Macfarlane Penner’s class, a group of Grade 1, 2, and 3 students are preparing to sit in a circle and hold hands.
The students offer each other what Macfarlane Penner calls a "mindful moment": the chance to begin their day with a quiet, calm awareness and say one thing they’re grateful for.
"At the beginning they were grateful for what they’re supposed to be grateful for, but then it turned into things like, ‘I’m grateful for my mom putting mitts in my bag today because it’s cold at recess,’" Macfarlane Penner says.
Macfarlane Penner believes mindfulness should be a "natural part of taking care of yourself," like brushing your teeth or getting enough sleep.
"It gets kids calmer and more focused," she says. "Kids are busy; we just don’t see it as the same busy as us. Sometimes what they didn’t have time for might have been something important to them, so let’s just slow down and take a moment."
The Winnipeg School Division has been incorporating mindfulness into their daily teachings since 2013. After conducting a divisional survey they noticed the number of students identifying symptoms of anxiety and depression were above Canadian norms.
Jón Olafson has been running the division’s mental health strategic plan, Healthy Minds, for the last four years. He says mindfulness was introduced so students could learn to self-regulate and cope with their emotions.
"We concretely teach it as a skill, almost as when you’re learning how to do mathematics," Olafson says. "We made a connection to Grade 5 and Grade 8 because our data showed us that not only were symptoms above the national average, but they were at those specific ages."
'We concretely teach it as a skill, almost as when you're learning how to do mathematics. We made a connection to Grade 5 and Grade 8 because our data showed us that not only were symptoms above the national average, but they were at those specific ages' — Jón Olafson, who runs the Winnipeg School Division's mental health strategic plan
Six to eight weeks after mindfulness was adopted in all of the division’s schools, testing showed increased senses of calm and safety in classrooms, according to Olafson.
"In the last five years the conversation around mental health has significantly changed, and I think that’s part of some of the work we’re seeing happening in schools. Students are talking more," Olafson says.
Over 1,200 Manitoba kids were hospitalized for mental health issues between 2016 and 2017, according to a report released by Children First Canada and the O’Brien Institute for Public Health. That’s a 55 per cent increase for those aged five to 24 over the last decade.
In Canada, an estimated 10 to 20 per cent of children are affected by a mental illness or disorder, according to Youth Mental Health Canada. They are also among the highest risk populations for suicide, and only one out of five Canadian children who need mental health services receive them.
Jarylle Santos, 13, and Mikayla Seculles, 10, are both students at Sargent Park School. Aside from practicing mindfulness, they also learn about mental disorders and how to support one another.
"It can be really important since if a classmate has mental illness we can ask them to get help," Jarylle says. "Sometimes it can be hard for them to open up."
Mikayla admits to sometimes feeling stressed at school, and says mindfulness has helped.
"It can really help you calm down and learn better," she says.
Sargent Park School guidance counsellor Cristina Almeida believes anxiety levels are higher than when she was in school.
"Even during my first few years as a teacher I don’t remember it being so prevalent," Almeida says. "Starting off your day with calm breathing or yoga can set the pace for the rest of the day and open up the conversation with kids."
Mandatory school curriculums address mental health at early, middle and senior years throughout a variety of subject areas. The provincial health initiative, Healthy Schools, uses workshops, activities and lesson plans to promote mental well-being in classrooms.
The goal is also to develop coping skills, empathy and decrease bullying.
Pembina Trails School Division school psychologists work with students, school teams, and parents or guardians to provide a range of psychological services, according to their website.
While the school division follows the same compulsory curriculum areas other divisions do, schools are also tackling mental wellness in their own ways.
At Vincent Massey Collegiate, students can de-stress at a drop-in lunch hour colouring club on Fridays or a mindfulness group every Monday.
Teacher Nicole Rosever created both groups after recognizing the need for a relaxing space. She says the colouring club has been running for approximately four years while the mindfulness group started in 2017.
"There’s lots of opportunities in education to do things that are extroverted and less things that are more introverted or quiet," Rosever says. "It’s a place to recognize part of being human is not the doing, but the being."
Lily Hadfield, 14, Emma Hadfield, 17, and Ireland Moore, 16, all attend Rosever’s lunch hour clubs when they need to unwind.
"If you don’t want to be in a loud, crowded space like the cafeteria you can just come and eat lunch there," Lily says.
After moving to Winnipeg from Pilot Mound, Ireland lost her main stress relief outlet: competitive swimming.
"I felt really anxious all the time," she says. "When it was hard to get going in the mornings I’d meditate for about five minutes, then it would be a lot easier to manage throughout the day."
The three girls agree it has become more commonplace to discuss mental health in the classroom.
"Even in health classes your teacher says, ‘We didn’t talk about this when I was a kid,’" Emma says. "For us, we just grew up talking about it. It’s a normal thing you can share."
Louis Riel School Division partnered with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority three years ago to promote mental health education in all schools.
"We have clinicians, school psychologists and social workers teaching in the classroom about understanding the difference between well-being and mental illness," Murray says.
Students in Grade 9 and 10 receive mental health literacy education. That’s the time when many young people with a mental disorder start exhibiting symptoms, Murray says. Schools also connect with divisional clinicians or outside agencies if a student needs further support.
"The earlier we’re able to identify it the better the outcome is," Murray says. "We work hard to be part of a pathway to care for young people whose mental health problems are leading to substantive difficulties."
At the end of first period, Sue Macfarlane Penner’s students once again gather in a circle and hold hands before offering each other another "mindful moment."
"The gifts of mindfulness are daily," Macfarlane Penner says. "If they can learn how to make themselves mindful for even a few minutes maybe that would help."
Mikaela MacKenzie loves meeting people, experiencing new things, and learning something every day. That's what drove her to pursue a career as a visual journalist — photographers get a hands-on, boots-on-the-ground look at the world.