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In an effort to help combat the rise in mental illness among Canadian youth, several of the country’s private and independent schools are devising ways to focus on mental health and wellness in students.

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Students at Urban Academy in New Westminster, B.C., are taught about how their brains work from as early as junior kindergarten, as part of the private school's efforts to teach children about mental health.

"We start talking about brain function at a very young age," explains Cheryle Beaumont, head of school at Urban Academy.

"It doesn't mean there is a mental-health issue. It's just a wise way to help students develop the skills to organize their intellect so they can bring really focused and strategic thinking to their school work."

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And Ms. Beaumont isn't alone in her approach.

In Victoria, students at the Victoria School for Ideal Education practise transcendental meditation at the start and finish of the school day.

Other schools, such as Urban Academy and Halifax's Shambhala School, intertwine mindfulness – the act of being present in the moment – throughout their curriculum to help students find their focus in and outside of the classroom.

In an effort to help combat the rise in mental illness among Canadian youth, several of the country's private and independent schools are devising ways to focus on mental health and wellness in students.

Today's young people are bombarded with distractions, thanks to technology and a faster-paced world, so there is an increased focus among educators on providing the skills to foster in-the-moment concentration and real-world connections."It's about recognizing the signs and signals in your body and mind, and knowing when you're feeling overwhelmed or you're feeling stressed or you need to concentrate," explains Ms. Beaumont. "We try to focus on the fact that the tools to manage these things lie within you."

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), youth between the ages of 15 and 24 experience the highest instances of mental-health issues in Canada.

Early introduction of mental-health instruction in the classroom is an excellent way to help students understand and take control of their own wellness, explains Katy Kamkar, a psychologist at CAMH and an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Toronto.

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"Gaining knowledge about physical health and mental health as early as possible is very important because it helps with mental-health promotion, it helps towards prevention, and it helps towards early intervention," she says. "It's never too early."

Since the introduction of social media more than a decade ago, parents, teachers and health-care professionals have worried about its effects on young people. Cyberbullying, reinforcement of negative self-esteem and the goal of unattainable Instragram perfection are just a few of these concerns.

And students today are more engaged online than ever before.

According to Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III – a 2014 report by MediaSmarts, which surveyed about 5,000 students across the country – the second most frequent online activity by students (52 per cent) is reading or posting on someone else's social media network site, just behind playing online games (59 per cent).

But there is also an upside to this form of communication when it comes to mental health, explains Dr. Kamkar.

"When people read other people's stories on social media, it can motivate them, encourage them and help identify signs and symptoms," she says.

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"As long as this line of communication is used respectfully, and used to provide education and helpful resources, it can be very helpful."

But the fact remains that young people today interact more online than any previous generation and are at risk of feeling disconnected.

School counsellor Gillian Shadley, who is responsible for wellness and outreach programs at Lower Canada College (LCC) in Montreal, says that the feeling of being connected is at the core of the school's approach to mental health and wellness.

"The more connected you are to your peers, to your teachers, to your school, generally, the happier you are," she says. "And what we've found is that we have a pretty high rate of kids that feel connected, whether it's through sports or arts or robotics or drama, but we're always working to increase that connection."

LCC also employs an advisory system that places each student in a group that consists of between 10 and 14 students and one teacher. Each group meets weekly to cover topics that range from academic advice to mental health. "That time is set aside to address the issues that we may have trouble fitting into class time," explains Ms. Shadley.

These small groups remain the same for a minimum of one to two years to help forge a bond between the students and their advisors.

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"Our focus towards mental health is really on prevention," adds Ms. Shadley.

"We aim for every student to feel that they have one adult they can go to, to help them with whatever issues they need, or if they can't help, then they can at least point them in the right direction."

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