Students give voice to mental health


Okay to talk about: All Saints’ students Dhaif, Marielle, Luca and Batyr presenters start a conversation on mental health.

Year 11 students at All Saints Catholic Senior College took less than two hours to turn their view of mental health around through a session with Batyr.

The organisation educates young people about mental health by connecting students with those who have successfully dealt with mental illness. About 230 students listened as university students Jock and Brittany shared their experiences of depression and anxiety and how they found help. October is Mental Health Month in NSW.

There are always going to be factors in life that can alter our state of mind and how we see things.

– Marielle, Year 11

Jock was hospitalised for depression after suffering panic attacks during law exams, a more severe form of the anxiety he felt in high school. The former school vice captain credits his father’s suggestion he see a psychologist and his younger sister’s support for saving his life. Brittany changed house, degree, and took up mindfulness meditation as part of her healing process. She said both a friend and psychologist had given her the support she needed to feel well.

“I still struggle with anxiety,” she told students. “The difference now is that I know what is happening and that if I tackle what I can and accept what I can’t change things will get better for me.”

Batyr chief executive Sam Refshauge said the organisation was named after an elephant in Kazakhstan that was taught to speak more than 20 phrases in Russian. It was started by a university graduate who had suffered depression and found research supported peer-to-peer contact as the thing most likely to help people reach out and voice the feelings associated with poor mental health.

“Essentially he started Batyr to give a voice to the elephant in the room, being mental health, and to reduce the stigma that surrounds mental health in our communities,” he said.

“Our programs are run for students from Year 9 up to university. They look at that transition age into the senior years of high school when the pressures become a little bit more and when exams become a little bit more important, to get in early and take a preventative approach [to mental illness].”

“When you look at the statistics, students younger and younger are impacted by mental ill health so the earlier you can get in and say ‘Look, it’s okay to talk about these things, it’s okay to not be okay’ and that help is out there, the earlier they will get support and not get to crisis point.”

Mr Refshauge said trained facilitators talked through statistics, stigma and support, including services at school, in the broader community and online.

“This school in particular has head of homeroom teachers, year group coordinators, a school counsellor, and the assistant principal is in charge of pastoral care,” he said.

“Now the teachers have had all their students go through a Batyr program as they’re going into Year 12 and into that really high stress, high pressure time. It’s a really positive environment that they’ve created.”

At the end of the session students were invited to write messages of support for the guest speakers or to share what they had learned during the session.

Year 11 students   Marielle Toletino, Dhaif Daief, and Luca Cattarin all found value in the talk.

“There is this stigma in society where mental ill health is the elephant in the room,” said Marielle, 17.

“I think it is an important issue that everybody should know about because it affects us one way or another, whether it be through our friends and family or ourselves, because there are always going to be factors in life that can alter our state of mind and how we see things.

“We do have a school counsellor and through preventative organisations and talks like these we are more aware of how to take care of each other and how to take care of ourselves.”

Dhaif, 17, said he found the talks inspirational.

“The statistic that in a class of 30 students, seven will have a mental illness and only two will seek help and not be afraid of talking to others about how they are feeling struck me,” he said.  “It really encouraged us to pursue mental wellbeing and if you ever feel left out to talk to someone, because there’s always someone out there who cares about you. We also have fabulous teachers here. All of them are here for us; all of them are willing to help.”

Luca, 16, said the main message was ‘don’t be afraid to seek help.

“When we were talking about mental illness they asked a question about mental health and asked us to raise our hands if we though what had been said was negative,” he said.

“All of us raised our hands. Mental health is just what our mental state of health is, it’s not actually bad, but we all thought it was. It’s striking how we think that.”

By the end of the session the words associated with mental health had moved from  ‘brain’, ‘self-esteem’, ‘insecurity’, ‘depression’ and ‘silence’, to more positive terms including ‘support’, ‘hope’, ‘courage’, ‘resilience’, ‘courage’ and ‘love’.

Students were advised to:

Look out – for changes in behaviour that could indicate depression in a friend, family member or peer.

Listen up – when they speak.

Reach out – to offer help and support, or to support at school or external organisations including Headspace or Beyond Blue.

Get talking – to a counsellor if need be.

Take charge – and do things to foster resilience.



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