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Maintaining good mental health is a challenge for students in secondary and pre-university studies at any school. At Pearson, we – students, Faculty, staff, houseparents – work to support healthy living throughout the year. In addition to the story below, in next month’s Pearson eNews, watch for news about how a “flipped” schedule in early November was a pilot project to see if scheduling the outdoor activities during the short daylight hours of the month also helps support good mental health.

On the Pacific coast of Canada, the winters are wet, and the days are short. November on the campus of Pearson College UWC is traditionally rainy and, while we avoid almost all the below-freezing temperatures and snow enjoyed by the rest of the country during the winter, the skies are often grey and the ground usually saturated.

For students, some from different climates, most who are away from home for the first extended period of time, the first “dark” month of the season and the school year may be a challenging time to maintain practices which support good mental and physical health.

Heather Gross, Deputy Head and Vice-President of Education and Programming, says that particularly in recent years, Pearson has ensured both strengthened systems and comprehensive, supportive resources are in place to help students reach out for assistance if and when they are needed. The supports range from the informal to formal and from community-based to accredited and professional.

Mental health concerns can present in any number of ways, sometimes without warning, and they can range from anxiety about academic concerns or life issues to more serious situations. While the campus health centre, with medical support available 24/7, is often a starting point for students seeking advice, direction and referral, mandatory training for adults and all students on campus helps heighten awareness on the part of everyone.

“We use a ‘Circle of Care’ concept as our approach to safeguarding students,” says Gross. “Very simply, the concept is that students are at the centre and around them is a circle of people who are caring for them.”

She adds that this approach, backed up by academic literature and studies, was originally introduced to the Pearson campus by a professional clinical counsellor working with students.

“The idea is that triaging mental challenges, but also academic challenges or other health challenges, isn’t left only to health care professionals,” says Gross. “Working alongside the professionals, care is complemented by a circle of people.”

Such a ‘student care team’ may include an individual student’s advisor, teachers, houseparents, nurse, Dean of Students, Dean of Studies, as well as, if needed, a clinical counsellors and related care practitioners. Gross notes that students seeking assistance for any health matter are always treated with respect for their personal privacy.

Through the Health Centre, students have access to available clinical counsellors who work with the College as well as within the area community. One of the consulting counsellors, thanks to his role as a supervisor for individuals completing their counselling education and practicums, is able to bring in additional counselling resources if needed.

Supporting mental health and wellbeing means far more than simply being reactive, though. Gross adds individuals with mindfulness training and an experienced nutrition and fitness counsellor also are available to work with students.

Another proactive source of service is Pearson’s team of Peer Supporters. As a voluntary CAS activity, students volunteer to become Peer Supporters and are trained to act as trusted ‘first responders” for students who might wish to share any concerns about mental health and wellness.

“They are not trained as counsellors,” says Gross. “They are trained in crisis intervention and in mental health first aid — listening carefully and, as needed, providing referrals to other resources.”

Peer Supporters, available in every student residential house, meet weekly to learn skills and to talk about what kinds of things people (on campus) are talking to them about – essentially debriefing and sharing knowledge about what’s going on, on campus.

“We also proactively have improved how we work to meet the needs of many different groups on campus,” says Gross. “One way of doing this is by supporting affinity groups. So, for example, we have community members within the Indigenous, LGTBQ+ and various religious communities working with students one on one and in group settings.”

“We also have more support systems in place for individuals to connect with the local community – steps as straightforward as offering to provide transportation to events at the Victoria Native Friendship Centre as well as to local mosques, synagogues and churches.”

The unique makeup of Pearson’s student body, including young people who come from disrupted backgrounds or areas of conflict, is mirrored across all 18 UWC schools around the world.

The UWC movement, taking a cue from the leading work done here at Pearson, has adopted student safeguarding standards that are now implemented at all UWC schools and colleges. Gross, Pearson’s primary contact for the UWC Safeguarding group, has been active in sharing with other UWCs learnings and leading practices adopted on this campus.