QUEEN MARY Elementary School in Vancouver’s West Point Grey enclave offers gorgeous views of Spanish Banks beach, English Bay and the downtown’s sparkling skyscrapers. It is the kind of place where teacher Arlene Cook raised money to buy soothing, full-spectrum light bulbs for her Grade 6 class to complement the soft afternoon sun. In this seemingly idyllic milieu, what could youngsters possibly have to worry about?
Far too much, it turns out. That’s why this spring Cook took part in a pilot project to spot and help treat the first signs of mental illness in kids. “What you think affects how you feel,” says Cook. “And when you feel good, you do better.”
Designed to aid children with anxiety, the program was developed in Australia and is called FRIENDS, an acronym that sums up its advice: “Feeling worried? Relax. Inner thought. Explore plans. Nice work, reward. Don’t forget to practise. Stay calm.” B.C. will be the first province to implement the program this fall. “For me,” says Cook, “the program says to kids, ‘It’s OK, we all experience anxiety, we all have fears, and this is, in fact, good. But we need to learn how to
make choices and control our emotions.’” FRIENDS helps kids handle the emotional strains associated with such situations as tests, family arguments, even stage fright. Teachers walk children through coping mechanisms—take deep breaths, relax your muscles—so the initial distress doesn’t grow into something worse: falling grades, social withdrawal, even drugs and alcohol.
About 125 teachers and as manyas 1,500 elementary school students took part in the pilot. In weekly lessons, children learned to recognize the symptoms associated with “that freaked-out feeling,” such as a racing heart, a lump in the throat and sweaty palms, says Lynn Miller, a University of British Columbia psychologist who trained the teachers. “Instead of being frightened,” says Miller, “the children are supposed to realize their bodies are cueing them to calm themselves down.” In her first class, Cook focused on having the kids describe what it’s like to feel worried. Over time, they explored a range of troubling experiences, from the death of a pet to losing money.
Research shows that kids who go through FRIENDS feel better. In Australia, follow-up studies show that over 80 per cent of the students who had clinical signs of anxiety were symptom-free after the sessions. A good reason to relax. DANYLO HAWALESHKA
Coping mechanisms keep distress from leading to something worse: falling grades, withdrawal, drugs
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