Pediatricians in training hit Calgary schools to raise awareness about mental health

Calgary pediatricians in training are working to help junior high students who may be struggling with their mental health during the pandemic.

22 pediatric residents hosted mental health program at 11 CBE schools this week

Dr. Rebecca Hay, left, and her colleagues Dr. Elise Martin, middle, and Dr. Madi Riddell, right, were part of a presentation at Calgary junior high schools to destigmatize mental health issues. (Submitted by Rebecca Hay)

Calgary pediatricians in training are working to help junior high students who may be struggling with their mental health during the pandemic.

Twenty-two pediatric residents fanned out to 11 Calgary Board of Education junior high schools this week on a mission to destigmatize mental health issues and connect kids with help at a time when many are struggling to cope.

"It's important now more than ever to really emphasize mental health strategies [and] help increase our supports," said Dr. Rebecca Hay, a pediatric resident at Alberta Children's Hospital, which is dealing with a pandemic-driven influx of kids in mental health crisis.

She created the program prior to the pandemic but said COVID-19 has added a sense of urgency.

"Oftentimes these kids don't get a chance to access care until they're presenting very sick."

Hay says the team explains the science behind mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

"Our core message is if we understand what causes mental health problems, then we can better understand that it's really a physical problem and it's very real and it's something we need to treat just as seriously as any other injury, like a broken arm."

During the presentation, called Stress and the Brain, residents describe the signs to look for. They give kids information about where to go for help, including where to find doctors and free counselling as well information on crisis lines.

Hay hopes that hearing from pediatric residents will help demystify the process for kids.

"They may be the care providers that youth would encounter by going to these clinics and by seeking care, so it takes away that mystery and puts a face to health care — to help, hopefully, encourage students and children and youth to access the support that they may need"

Twenty-two pediatric residents gave a presentation called Stress and the Brain to classrooms in 11 Calgary Board of Education schools this week. Dr. Rebecca Hay, left, who leads the program, says information like this is urgently needed during the pandemic. (Submitted by Rebecca Hay)

Giving kids a language to express their feelings

"For some kids, it's a pretty hard time right now," said Dr. Nicole Racine, a Calgary clinical psychologist and a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Calgary.

In her private practice, she's seeing increased severity in mental health difficulties that kids and teens are experiencing, including more acute anxiety.

School-based programs, she said, can be very effective and can reach children who may be struggling but don't know what to do.

"It also may help validate and destigmatize them of their experience where they may feel more comfortable in sharing about it with their peers or with their teachers or with their parents," she said.

"Or [it can] give them a language to understand what their experience is where perhaps before they were having feelings that they simply just didn't know what they were or how to describe, so having language to be able to describe that is actually really important."

Dr. Nicole Racine, a Calgary clinical psychologist, says education programs in schools can help destigmatize mental health and give kids the language they need to express what they are going through. (Nicole Racine)

Hay partnered with the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) to launch the program at schools around the city.

"This is important and urgent for our students and our youth within the city," said Andrea Holowka, superintendent of school improvement with the CBE, who noted the board has been working for several years  to train teachers about mental health issues.

"We know that there are students that are struggling, and as schools, we are always looking for ways to better support students with their mental health. And we know that we can't do this alone. We need to do it in partnership with … health practitioners."

Hay hopes this particular presentation will become a yearly event. She plans to follow up with the junior highs they visited this week and potentially offer more mental health-related programs in those classrooms in the months to come.


Jennifer Lee


Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary. She worked at CBC Toronto, Saskatoon and Regina, before landing in Calgary in 2002. If you have a health or human interest story to share, let her know.