Members of the Bishop Ryan Celtic Circle Student Leaders were recognized for their exemplary peer helping program at the Ontario School Counsellors’ Association (OSCA) Gala Dinner on November 9th where they were presented with the association’s prestigious Daryl L. Cook Peer Helping Award.
The award, which honours Daryl Cook’s outstanding contribution to guidance counselling in Ontario and acknowledges her strong support of peer helping programs in Ontario schools, is presented to one school in Ontario annually.
The Celtic Circle, a student leadership club at Bishop Ryan Catholic Secondary School, consists of over 30 students who are passionate about helping others. Now in its second year, the club is guided by the motto “Be courageous. Be caring. Be compassionate. Build community.” With their teacher-advisor, Marisa Mariella, they work to build an inclusive and welcoming school community where every student feels connected and valued.
“It was such an honour to receive the award from Ms. Daryl Cook herself,” said Grade 11 student and founding member, Emilie Suwala. “The evening was really special for all us.”
The members, ranging from Grade 10-12+, are driven to address mental health “because they know that 1 in 5 Canadian teens suffer from mental illness,” said Mariella.
“They know that enhancing students’ self-esteem will also contribute both directly and indirectly to improvements at school and to positive mental health.”
Trained in safeTALK to be suicide alert helpers, the student leaders work to promote a mindset that helps build empathy and support for individuals who are struggling with mental health problems, and create hope by encouraging unity and inclusivity.
“Ultimately, they work to bring awareness to mental health in the same way that people understand physical health,” said Mariella.
The award gives validation to their work, indicated Roberto Vasquez. In addition to his work with the Celtic Circle, the Grade 12 student serves as the student representative on the HWCDSB Mental Health Advisory Council.
“The award means a lot to us. It helps us realize that we are on the right track. After all, mental health is everyone’s business,” he said.
The club’s efforts begin with the Grade 8 students’ transition into high school. They work collaboratively with other staff and school clubs to create, coordinate and implement different activities. They also implement a student-led, teacher-facilitated, award-winning initiative called iMATTER: Taking Care of Teen Mental Health which was created by their teacher-advisor in 2008. Based on best practice regarding school-based interventions, iMATTER uses peer power to increase awareness of mental health problems and mental illness, dispel myths, break stigma and stereotypes, build empathy, and promote help-seeking behaviours.
Their dedication to teen mental health also includes collaborating with staff to build capacity in the school. Last spring, the club organized an in-service called “Preparing to Tackle Teen Mental Health” where over 20 staff members and 20 students received safeTALK training. Following their training, the CC Student Leaders led an interactive presentation that included guest speaker, Sid Stacey (Director of Administration Department of Psychiatry & Behavioural Neurosciences at McMaster University and Chair of the Suicide Prevention Community Council of Hamilton) who shared his lived experience regarding the loss of one of his daughters to suicide.
“The club is not only grateful of the positive response for all their initiatives, but they also feel very honoured to have been so well supported by the school community and beyond,” shared Mariella.
The club has been invited to present at several local, provincial and national conferences, and has met with other schools in Ontario to help launch similar initiatives and train other student leaders.
“It makes us feel really proud to represent Bishop Ryan,” said Grade 12 founding member, Alyssa Gentile who has helped train a number of Grade 9 students. “We are very grateful for the support of our peers and staff.”
Attending the awards dinner with Mariella were Emilie Suwala, Alyssa Gentile and Roberto Vasquez.
“The CC Student Leaders share the award with every Celtic because everyone knows that mental health matters at BR,” said a proud Mariella.