Teacher, student drew on experience to create mental wellness course at Sask. distance education centre

Alexis Epp, left, and Elaina Guilmette, right, had a hand in creating the mental wellness program. (Photo submitted by Sun West Distance Learning Centre)

Program at Sun West Distance Learning Centre aims to give students ‘toolbox’ to deal with mental health

By Bryan Eneas, courtesy of CBC News, published September 7, 2019

A distance learning centre based in Kenaston, Sask., has developed a course to help its students learn about mental wellness — including their own mental health, and the mental health of those around them. 

Elaina Guilmette is a teacher at the Sun West Distance Learning Centre who helped design the mental wellness class.

She noticed a student in her exercise science class, Alexis Epp, would do great work — when she attended her courses. 

“There was quite a stretch where she wasn’t handing in assignments,” Guilmette said.

“She finally called me up one day and said that she was really struggling with her mental health and she was in the Dubé Centre,” an acute treatment facility for mental health and addictions at Saskatoon’s Royal University Hospital.

Epp was diagnosed with depression at age 15 and prescribed pills to cope with it, but she didn’t understand what was going on in her body.

She says she turned to the internet for answers.

“When I was Googling depression, instead of getting ways to cope with it or how to deal with it, I got ways on how to commit suicide. I got drugs, I got alcohol — all the unhealthy coping strategies,” Epp said. 

She started distance learning and eventually moved to Saskatoon, but her mental health was getting worse.

“My anxiety was the worst it had ever been and I could barely leave my house,” Epp said. “That’s when I admitted myself into the Dubé Centre.” 

Guilmette said she and Epp started talking about her mental health more and more, and the teacher knew she wanted to do something to help.

Creating a course to help others

Guilmette and Epp worked on developing the Mental Wellness 30 high school course with a counsellor and other teachers from the Sun West Distance Learning Centre — which offers online K-12 courses and is based in Kenaston, a village about 75 kilometres southeast of Saskatoon.

Guilmette said mental health is discussed in the classroom through elementary and middle school, but she found once students hit Grade 10, there aren’t many courses available that help them focus on their mental health.

“We’re getting better. There’s more and more schools that are bringing up mental health literacy and they’re talking about it, but we’re still not giving kids the tools they need to equip themselves to buffer life’s stresses,” said Guilmette.

“This was kind of a way to help that need.”

The course is catered to each individual, Guilmette says. Each student has a chance to share what they already know about mental health and then they are asked what they would like to learn.

From there, the course is personalized based on some of the key areas the student wants to learn about. 

Aspects of the course include learning what mental health and wellness mean and about stigma and identity, as well as how our thinking impacts our behaviour, Guilmette said. Emotions, stress management and brain development are also addressed. 

The course also looks at the effects of social media and technology, and students get information about what kind of support might be available to them in their community, says Guilmette.

“This helps them cultivate a toolbox of resources that are out there for them when life does get challenging.”

Guilmette says the mental wellness program has garnered the interest of other schools in Saskatchewan.

A pilot is underway in schools in Meadow Lake and in Kenaston, and another program will be starting soon in Turtleford. 

An in-person version of the distance education program will be offered in some schools soon, and free access will be given to some students around the province, Guilmette said.