When returning from a year-long medical leave from her teaching job and St. Peter’s Catholic Secondary School, Julie Vallieres was on a mission. Her absence was the result of a relapse into depression, a condition she has struggled with for over 20 years. She has been eager to share her story with others in order to break the silence and fight the stigma of mental illness by stimulating open and honest communication about the disease. Returning to St. Peter’s in September, she was a woman on a mission, and fortunately, the school was ready and waiting. She was given the task of initiating a program to help staff and students deal with this invisible but pervasive illness.
St. Peter’s was more than ready to talk about mental illness, and with her own personal experience with the illness, Vallieres was just the person to spearhead the mission.
With her dedicated group of student volunteers, Vallieres has launched a mental health initiative at the school entitled “Change Your Mind”. Their objective is to destroy the stigma associated with mental illness in their school community through education, open communication and the promotion of a healthy lifestyle. Fifteen students meet with Vallieres on Thursdays to develop activities and events promoting mental health and mental health awareness. Each Thursday, they share a mental health myth as part of the school announcements, such as the myth that mental illness is just an excuse for poor behaviour. During the first period on Thursdays, teachers show a brief video about mental illness selected by the group which becomes the topic for a brief class discussion. There are also mental health workshops offered during lunch periods where students can engage in activities such as yoga and meditation which are designed to promote mental health.
One of the first things this group did was create the poster shown below. The semi-colon inside the word “mind” is a code in mental health circles; it is used to represent the decision to move forward as opposed to a period which symbolizes a decision to stop. The rocket in the poster’s background is a nod to their late physics teacher. Their program was introduced at an annual community football event called Friday Night Lights last month organized by Team 55, a Peterborough suicide awareness group founded by the parents who lost their son, a local high school football quarterback, to suicide. With the participation of seven local high school communities, the event raises funds and awareness for suicide prevention. This year, Team 55 had challenged local high school students to develop a mental health or suicide prevention campaign and compete for the title of Mental Health Champion. The Crestwood video “Give Stigma the Finger” was that school’s response to the challenge.
The group at St. Peter’s is using tools provided by the Canadian Mental Health Association in Peterborough, an organization which was very helpful to Vallieres during her personal struggles. She has taken the Mental Health First Aid Training and the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training program offered by CMHA to build her coping skills as well as her ability to help others. There is also a Catholic school board initiative to train all of their teaching staff in the suicide awareness workshop known as safeTALK by the end of the school year.
Vallieres is a tremendous ambassador for mental health and as a survivor of sorts, she has high credibility with fellow sufferers. In her own battle, she has developed many outlets to maintain her sense of balance, including running and more recently, photography. Looking through a camera lens offers a different perspective which Vallieres finds calming. The calm is fleeting, however, as she brings a commitment and intensity to her fight against mental illness that is clearly personal. That intensity is a magnet for those who share her desire to join the fight.