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The girl with the ponytail and hightop sneakers looks like any other teenager as she grabs a book from her locker and trudges down the corridor to class.
But the whisper of a violin signals there’s more going on behind the scene. Over the course of the next 13 minutes on film, the girl will race through a forest and gasp for breath. She will cross a stream on stepping stones and peer into a dark tunnel. She will flail underwater, pirouette in a sunlit barn and finally, end up on the shore of a peaceful lake.
This is Warrior Within, a fictional short film for high school students that explores stress, anxiety and resilience. It’s the centrepiece of a new project — by students and for students — to create engaging mental health curriculum at a time when rates of depression and other conditions are increasingly common among children and teens.
For the youth behind it, “this is what we wish we’d been taught,” says Jonah Davids, a grade 12 student at Toronto Prep School. He’s one of 10 students from three Toronto private schools collaborating on curriculum to accompany the film, under the supervision of guidance counsellor Catherine Wachter.
“If you want to learn about mental health (issues), who better to teach you than a guidance teacher and a bunch of teens who’ve experienced it and survived,” says Davids.
Many of the students themselves have struggled with stress, anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses. They’re committed to educating other teenagers and bringing the topic into the open.
“This is being driven completely by kids,” says Wachter, co-founder of the project with local film producer Nicola Doyle. “The student voice can connect with students so much better than the teacher voice.”
While public awareness has come a long way, Wachter, who teaches at University of Toronto Schools (UTS), was frustrated at the lack of creative resources about a topic she considers crucial. So were some of her students.
Often classroom material is limited to clinical facts and a “simple black-and-white binary” of mental health versus mental illness rather than reflecting a spectrum of moods and conditions, says Deanna Kim, a grade 12 student at UTS.
“There needs to be a component of emotional resonance in order for (curriculum) to be effective.”
That’s where the film comes in. There is no dialogue or text and only one character, played by 15-year-old UTS student Karolina Urbanovich.
Using powerful imagery, the 13-minute perspective invites viewers to interpret it their own way and is aimed at provoking discussion.
About a dozen students, guided by a handful of professional mentors, shot Warrior Within over four days last summer and created visual art and music to accompany it. Wachter invested her own money, raised $ 17,000 through crowdfunding and hopes to raise another $ 10,000 to cover costs.
The student curriculum team is now in the process of designing half a dozen lesson plans covering everything from the science of mental illness to stigma, the role of social media, and cultural attitudes. Coping strategies will be front and centre. So will artists and other positive role models with mental illness living successful lives.
Instead of lectures, they’re developing interactive lessons using lots of visuals, icebreaker activities, mindfulness games and exercises that encourage students to take the lead.
“You want kids to be excited to come to this class,” says Sara Naqvi, a grade 11 student at St. Clements School. “We want them to want to learn about it.”
Once completed this spring, the material will be vetted by a social worker and mental health professional, and available for educators and others to download for free.
The concept has the potential to make a difference, says Toronto psychiatrist Dr. Marshall Korenblum, who believes storytelling and art are valuable tools for conversing about mental health.
“Peers speak to peers with a credibility that adults don’t have,” says Korenblum, psychiatrist-in-chief at Hincks-Dellcrest Centre, a children’s mental health centre.
“And if you have a peer who’s had what we would call ‘lived experience,’ then that has extra credibility. So not only are they speaking from the same level, but they’re speaking from a place of ‘I know what this is like.’ ”
There’s also a benefit for students behind the scenes, notes Rhea Jangra, who’s in grade 12 at UTS.
“It’s an opportunity to make a difference.”
Warrior Within will be screened at a gala fundraiser May 17 at the Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto, along with a student panel and art exhibit.