TORONTO — Veteran educator Margaret Klompas –head of guidance at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto’s Wilmington Avenue campus – is tackling the issue of mental health with a new program at the school called “Disable the Label.”
“We have to talk about the elephant in the room,” she told The CJN.
Four months ago, Klompas attended a “Focus on Mental Health” conference that was geared to post-high school institutions, where she was struck by a statistic on a fact sheet: “Seventy per cent of adults living with mental illness say symptoms developed before they were 18 years old. The fear of stigma often delays diagnosis and treatment; therefore, early intervention can make an enormous difference over a lifetime.”
Over the 30 or so years that Klompas has been at TanenbaumCHAT, she’s dealt with many students.
Although she has seen only “a few” with mental health issues, she said that for every one of them, “I’m pretty sure there are many others who don’t [talk to me].”
The Queen’s University Alumni Review reported earlier this year that, “according to mental health experts, one in four young people experience some form of mental disorder – from depression and anxiety, to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia – while attending high school, university or college. Roughly one in 10,000 will attempt suicide, which is the leading non-accidental cause of death in the 14-to-24 age group.”
Earlier this month, Klompas emailed TanenbaumCHAT alumni to let them know about her initiative. She said she would like to invite four recent alumni to take part in a panel in December, to discuss how their illness affected them in high school and university, and also to offer advice on overcoming challenges.
Less than 24 hours later, she was “swamped” with replies. One former student called in tears.
“Obviously, I’ve touched a nerve,” Klompas said.
She has also enlisted students’ help in organizing a student committee, and was gratified by the number of teens who volunteered.
She is planning a year-long series of events – “because I know no one-shot deal works – to educate both staff and students. I feel any student is suffering twice – from the illness and from the lack of understanding.”
Her first initiative, last June, was a professional development day for TanenbaumCHAT staff on eating disorders and anxiety, with speakers Leanne Needham, co-ordinator of family and youth programs for the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario, and Dr. Cathleen Steinegger, medical director of the Eating Disorders Program at the Hospital for Sick Children.
Other aspects of the project include a Grade 9 trip to see the film Bully next month, and a talk by a representative of Kids Help Phone in November. A presentation by MADD Canada about drinking and driving took place earlier this month.
“I want the staff and the kids to understand that we’re all very sympathetic with a broken leg,” Klompas said, “and we’ve got to be just as sympathetic with the illnesses we can’t see.”