Healthy Living in the North

IMAGINE grant: Discover Daycare

The outdoor play equipment and safety surface at the Discovery Childcare Centre.

It’s no secret that active outdoor play is important for children. In a recent paper on the benefits of outdoor active play, the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and their partners state that kids who are outside move more and sit less, which contributes to a wide variety of health benefits.

The importance of outdoor play was clear to the Discovery Childcare Centre in Prince Rupert, but they just didn’t have the equipment to support that active play outdoors. And so, when the Board of Directors for the centre identified a new playground as a priority, they turned to the IMAGINE Community Grants program to help make the vision a reality.

More of the outdoor play equipment at the Discovery Childcare Centre.

Through years of focused effort, the daycare fundraised almost $40,000 to put toward the purchase and installation of new playground equipment for the 32 kids in their care. Their efforts took dedication and commitment, and in fall 2017 they were very close to achieving their goal!

However, one key piece remained: site preparation, including the purchase and installation of Playfall Tile, a rubberized safety surface manufactured from recycled tires that would cushion the inevitable falls of the hundreds of children who would enjoy the equipment over the years.  The quote for this work came in at roughly $5,000, and so the Board approved the submission of an application for an IMAGINE grant. The application was approved in spring 2018 and work began in June.

After its completion in August 2018, the new playground was an immediate hit with the kids attending the centre. Having a safe place to play outside, and the right equipment for that play, made a big difference for everyone. The centre has already observed that there is room for more growth in the future, with a key focus being the development of a garden area near the playground that will let kids learn about planting, growing, and eating fresh food. IMAGINE is proud to have contributed to this amazing project, and look forward to hearing about the centre’s successes in the future!

The IMAGINE Grant spring cycle is now accepting applications! Get yours in today!

Andrew Steele

About Andrew Steele

Andrew Steele is the Coordinator of Community Funding Programs for Northern Health. He is passionate about community development, and believes that healthy communities are the result of many people working together toward common goals. Outside work, Andrew loves mountain biking, teaching Ride classes at The Movement, and enjoying art, culture and food with friends and family.

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Filling the empty vessel of potential in today’s youth

(Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Northern Health’s Healthier You – Fall 2018 edition on Youth Mental Wellness. Read the full issue here.)

“I dunno, hangin’ out.”

I hear this a lot when I ask youth what they do for fun. It’s a regular part of my mental health assessment at the Foundry Youth Wellness Centre in Prince George. It’s a huge red flag for me. Conversely, when I hear things like, “I’m on the volleyball team,” “I go to youth group,” or “I play guitar,” I note these as protective factors that support positive health outcomes in youth.

Silhouettes of people jumping against a sunny sky.

The experience of being a teenager

The teenage years are a time of massive inner change and growth and the brain is beginning to lay down some serious tracks of development in areas that will define the rest of a youth’s adult life. It’s a time of self-discovery and identity formation; when youth begin to question what kind of a person they want to be, who they identify with, and what they stand for. It’s also a time when their brain is craving rewards in brain chemistry on a level that will never be surpassed in any other stage of life. And it’s a time when one feels invincible and invulnerable to accidents or physical pain!

At this stage, we tend to see high risk, adrenaline-producing behaviors, with apparent lack of regard for the dangers. The highs and lows of life are intense, and all-consuming. Most of us can relate to the music we listened to as teens as being the most impactful and moving music of our entire life. We feel the music more intensely then, than any other time in our life!

Playing an instrument, fine tuning a slap shot, or learning a new language are all examples of things that our youth are working in earnest to develop and master. They’re things that require focus, patience, vulnerability, and creativity. They help enhance one’s sense of self, provide a platform to stand on, and complete the sentence, “I am…” They provide places to both input passion and output frustration.

In the absence of more positive activities to fill the vessels of potential, youth wander into other things – or other things will find them. While harmless in many youth’s lives, social media and gaming can become obsessed over. Drugs are often first introduced at this stage of life. Gangs become more prevalent too, preying on young people who lack a sense of community or belonging, or a strong sense of self.

However, we know that the pathways youth take can veer in many different directions, and everyone, at any time is capable of positive change. We are also keenly aware that as the brain develops, it becomes familiar with what it experiences, and more deeply tied to both the positive and negative familiarities. It consumes what it is fed.  

Above all, parents want the best for their children, and for them to grow into healthy, happy, functional adults. See the side box for ways you can help make the transition from adolescence to adulthood as positive as it can be.

Here are some ways to help guide our children through adolescence into adulthood:

  • Get active! Try to involve your child in the activities that interest you, or that they show an interest in. The earlier the better, but it’s never too late to try something new.
  • Turn off the screens. If there is a screen to stare at, it becomes very hard to gather the motivation to get outside, or get involved in something active. Set up the house so that it is more fun to be out of it than in it.
  • Talk about what used to be thought of as taboo topics such as mental health, drugs, and alcohol openly. Be prepared to listen and hear the perspectives of children and youth without closing the door to conversation with advice or judgment. Portray the message that it is safe to discuss difficult things, and give youth time to come around. When they are ready, if they feel safe, they will talk.
  • Cheer them on. Though they don’t admit it, youth want to make their parents proud. Watch their games/recitals, bring the whole family, or become a coach/trainer/mentor.
  • If you know of a young person aged 12-24 who is struggling with mental health concerns, consider The Foundry as a resource.
Josh Van der meer

About Josh Van der meer

Josh is a Mental Health and Addictions Clinician who splits his time between the Early Psychosis Intervention Team and the Foundry Youth Access Clinic. He primarily works with youth and young adults. In his spare time, Josh likes to be somewhere outside with his wife, daughter and dog. Josh likes to speed skate in the winter, and play ultimate Frisbee and mountain bike in the summer.

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More than just body parts: connecting the dots between mental & sexual health

(Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Northern Health’s Healthier You – Fall 2018 edition on Youth Mental Wellness. Read the full issue here.)

I recently read a statement that resonated deeply with me. In an article called Sex Ed, Broken Hearts and Mental Health, written for Sexual and Reproductive Health Week (2018), the first sentence read: “Sexual health is not just about our body parts. The youth I work with understand this inherently.”

This is so true. There is much more to our sexual heath than just our body parts, but often when we think about sexual health, the first things that come to mind are sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and contraception – if only it were so simple.

We don’t often think about the important connection between mental health and sexual health in our everyday lives. Youth are particularly affected by this vast list of connection points: puberty, crushes, relationships, first loves, broken hearts, coping, anxiety, gender identity, gender expression, value clarification, body image, consent, stigma, STIs, birth control, self-discovery… the list itself is overwhelming!

Young people have a lot of things happening at once; I saw this first hand while working in a youth wellness clinic at a local high school. Many students came looking for sexual health services and almost all of them had questions or concerns that related in some way to mental health. It’s nearly impossible to talk about sexual health without discussing mental health.

The green and blue sex sense logo.

Reducing stigma

It’s important to acknowldege that sexual and mental health are two sensitive health topics that people often find difficult to talk about. Because of a lack of awareness and misunderstanding, these topics are often surrounded by stigma – even with ongoing public education efforts to address perceptions.

Stigma can lead to negative mental health outcomes, feelings of shame, isolation, and negative self-image. These feelings can act as barriers that prevent people from accessing the care and support they need. How scary for a young person to be experiencing so much and not be able to talk about it openly and honestly without fear of judgment!

 So, how can we help reduce stigma and support positive sexual and mental health?”

Being “sexually healthy” requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence.

Together, we can reduce stigma and help youth make informed and responsible decisions about their sexual and mental health. We can do this by building resiliency, increasing confidence, providing education, listening, and encouraging social connectedness.

Youth are entitled to positive and affirming health care that routinely and proactively meets the needs of their mental and sexual health. A big step towards achieving this is providing open safe spaces to talk about both. As parents and caregivers, we can help create this environment by becoming “askable adults.”

Talking matters: Be an askable adult

An askable adult is an approachable, non-judgmental source of reliable information for children and youth. This is a person that is easy to talk to, listens, respects a person’s right to privacy, and respects the right for a child or teen to feel the way they do. As children enter their teen years they start to turn to their friends for answers and information – often unreliable or inaccurate sources. Being as askable adult will help them know they can come to you whenever they have questions or curiosities.

While it may not seem like it at times, teens do care about what we say and do. Here are some tips to help make open, honest, give-and-take conversations about sexuality and mental health a normal part of family life:

  • Reflect on your upbringing. By thinking about the quality and nature of your experiences growing up, you may discover it is easier to respond to questions and find opportunities to start conversations about sexual and mental health.
  • Talk about sexual and mental health at an early age. And remember: it’s never too late to start.
  • Use correct vocabulary. By doing this, you will normalize the conversation and enhance the clarity of the discussion.
  • Watch for teachable moments. Talk about and help them understand issues as they come up in TV shows, movies, ads, music, social media, the community, and your (and their) social circle.
  • Provide resources. Provide information to youth about sexual health services and support so that they know where to go if they need help. Have resources like books in your home where your teen can get the right information.
  • Remember, you don’t have to know it all. Be an active learner yourself. Your teen will teach you just as much as you teach them. Look to your community for resources and information sources.
  • Encourage your teen to talk about their thoughts and ideas. An open exchange of ideas can help clarify the values you each hold.
  • When your teen asks you a question, do your best to answer it at the time. If you don’t know the answer, suggest that you find out together, or tell them you’ll find out and get back to them. Don’t put it off, as they might think that it’s not an okay topic, or not important enough to talk about.
  • Demonstrate responsible, health conscious decisions and behaviour. Show what healthy relationships and lifestyle choices look like by living them yourself.
  • Play the what-if game. Ask situational questions like, “What if you/your partner/your friend got pregnant?” or “What if your friends asked you to do something you weren’t comfortable with?” Do your best not to judge their responses, but do talk about the possible consequences of their choices and actions.
  • Stay away from scare tactics. Instead, encourage comfort and openness about sexuality; you want your children to experience sex as a positive, joyous part of their adult lives. Always be honest and open.
  • Speak to them as a mature person. Use correct terms to show that you respect their age and knowledge. Respect their views and feelings.
  • Recognize that you can’t control all of your teen’s actions. Assure your teen that there may be times you don’t approve of their actions but you’ll always support them and will always love them unconditionally.
  • Listen and stay calm. It’s important to deliver the message that they can talk to you when they need to and that you won’t get mad.
  • Repeat often and have fun! Repeating your information and messages serves several purposes. It helps to create normalcy around the subjects of sexuality and self-care. It also opens the door for clarification and more questions and reinforces your commitment to supporting and encouraging your child.

We know mental and sexual health are integral to overall health and well-being. We also know that health practices established in adolescence impact health into adulthood. Together, as parents and health care providers, we can influence the long-term health of our youth by being approachable, open, askable adults, and arming our children with the tools and knowledge they need to make informed and responsible decisions as they mature.

Shellie O'Brien

About Shellie O'Brien

Shellie grew up in rural Newfoundland and moved to B.C. in 2003. After graduating from the nursing program at Thompson Rivers University in 2007 she moved to Prince George to start her career. She has a passion for population and public health and is the Regional Lead for Sexual and Reproductive Health. After falling in love with the north she purchased a rural property and began to build her hobby farm and family. She enjoys the outdoors, animals, recreational dogsledding, reading, and healthy living. When not at work, she can be found happily doing something outside on her farm with her family.

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Time to take a second look in the mirror at our body image

(Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Northern Health’s Healthier You – Fall 2018 edition on Youth Mental Wellness. Read the full issue here.)

Wristbands stating Love Ourselves and Love Our Bodies.

When we turn on the TV or run through our social media feed, we are bombarded with images of thin, fit, photo-shopped, “perfect” people. But is this the norm? And is this healthy? In a recent study, girls, ages three and five, who were presented with dolls of different shapes preferred the thin version, describing the bigger dolls as sad, tired, and having no friends. We think we are immune to media, but even young children are exposed to messaging that implies being in a bigger body is bad. 

The fat phobic society we live in contributes to a negative body image. Body image is our own perception of our physical appearance, including our thoughts and feelings about the way we look. It impacts self-esteem, mental health, and well-being. Negative body image may lead to unhealthy dieting behaviours, the development of disordered eating and eating disorders, and may also lead to feelings of shame, guilt, low self-worth, and unhappiness. It’s estimated that 40 to 60 percent of girls aged six to twelve are concerned about their weight. 

As parents and caregivers, we often encourage our kids to be their healthiest. This may come across in messages about eating, activity, or striving to be a certain body size. While the intentions are good, these types of messages can often be misinterpreted by kids – that there is something wrong with their body and they need to change their shape or weight. If you look around where you live and in your family, healthy bodies are very diverse. Weight is not the biggest, or only, indicator of health. Focusing on well-being and healthy habits is more important than any number on the scale!

It’s important to have age-appropriate conversations with our children about health and body image, and work towards fostering a healthy relationship with our bodies.

How can you support youth to promote a healthy body image?

Be a positive role model. Be aware of your self-talk around weight and food, and get curious about your own beliefs and attitudes about body size and eating. For example, let your child catch you saying one positive thing about your body daily.

Celebrate diversity. Help your child to focus on their own unique qualities and talents rather than appearance as a foundation for self-esteem.

Open up the conversation. Talk about how media can impact our body image, or invite your kids to share how they are feeling about their bodies.

Teach your kids to view media messages critically. Help create awareness of how images and slogans make us feel about our bodies, and talk about how these images do not depict reality. Check out this tip sheet from MediaSmarts to get started.

Eat together. Plan and offer regular family meals as a way to encourage family time and model healthy approaches to eating. Get your kids involved in cooking too – how about a build your own taco or pizza night?

Make meals and snacks enjoyable. Practice an “all foods fit” approach in your home, offer a variety of foods and create a shame/guilt-free space to make food choices.

Take a balanced approach to physical activity. Encourage physical movement that is joyful, and focus on the fun, social aspects of being active. Refrain from teaching your child that activity is punishment or used to compensate for eating.

Explore what health really means to you and your family. Recognize that health is more than the absence of disease or having a certain body size. Health is inclusive of emotional, intellectual, social, spiritual, and physical wellness. Don’t let focusing on one (physical) compromise another (mental). Health may mean something different to you than your child.  Take the opportunity to explore. Plan family activities that promote a balanced view towards health.

If you think that you or someone you love has an eating disorder, please contact the Northern Health Eating Disorders Clinic at 250-565-7479.

Rilla Reardon

About Rilla Reardon

Rilla is a Registered Dietitian working for Northern Health since 2013. Rilla moved to northern BC from the east coast to continue developing her skills as a dietitian in a clinical setting while enjoying all that the north has to offer. Outside of work, she can be found experimenting in the kitchen or navigating the trails around Prince George with her dog, Henry. Rilla channels her passion for nutrition into practice, inspiring others to nourish their bodies, minds and souls with delicious and healthy food!

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The kitchen at Parkside Secondary School: More than a place to cook

(Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Northern Health’s Healthier You – Fall 2018 edition on Youth Mental Wellness. Read the full issue here.)

Staff at Parkside Secondary School in Terrace.
L-R: Terri Finlayson (teacher), Jane Aubuckle (principal), David Griffin (teacher), and Laurie Mutschke (meal coordinator).

“However the spirit moves you.”

That’s the cooking advice you will often hear Laurie Mutschke, School Meal Coordinator, share with her students at Parkside Secondary School in Terrace. Among her other roles, she runs the school’s daily hot lunch program that serves meals made from scratch.

The school receives donations from the local Food Share program, Terrace Church’s Food Bank, Donna’s Kitchen and Catering, and Breakfast Club of Canada, along with food from the local community garden where the students help out. Nothing goes to waste – even the food scraps get put into the aptly named “Critter Bin.” The students also get credit for helping Laurie in the kitchen. When fresh produce shows up at the school, they often decide what to make for lunch.                        

I met with Laurie and Terri Finlayson, Foods, Science and Life Skills teacher, to learn more about the program. They recently celebrated the grand opening of their brand-new kitchen, and I was happy to get a tour of the beautiful facility. As we chatted, Laurie and Terri shared many stories. I quickly learned why their school’s kitchen is so much more than just a place to cook.  

Student and teacher cooking together.
L-R: Dakota Gull (student) and David Griffin (teacher).

Tell me more about the staff and students at your school!

Laurie: “[Parkside] is considered an alternate school… there is a lot of flexibility in terms of individual education plans. So, maybe today English isn’t something you want to do, maybe you can work in the kitchen. I think, along with the students being a unique group, we really do have a different blend of teachers with different passions.”

How did you start getting the students involved with cooking?

“Sometime they just come to you and say, “Can I help?” Sometimes I don’t even need the help, but I pull them in because I see that they need to come in. I will go to the teachers, and ask, “Can I have her help? She’s lost today, and she needs something.”

How has cooking helped you build connections with the students?

Terri: “As you’re busy cooking, you can have those conversations. If you’re sitting down, one-on-one, looking at them in the face, [students] will often shut down. But if you’re doing something else and you just casually start talking, you get into these topics that you normally never do.

And because [Laurie] doesn’t have that designated teacher role, a lot of kids feel comfortable talking to [her]. They come into the kitchen and now you’ve built that relationship. It’s a special thing, and you have to be a certain way as a person, not just a cook. You’re a counsellor, you’re a cook, and you’re also dealing with hygiene and teaching life skills.”

What other positive impacts has the cooking program had on students’ mental wellness?

Laurie: “They can feel good about themselves. They have a special job that makes them feel so important. On the lunch line someone says, ‘This is great, Laurie!’, and I say, ‘Don’t thank me – So and So made that!’ Just the connection you get over food, and their sense of their accomplishment.

Sometimes being in the kitchen becomes the reward. Not the eating of the food, but the preparing. We have a young lady who is on a very limited part-time schedule, but on certain days she does the baking… While they wait for whatever to be baked, [she] and her sister work on math in the kitchen. That then becomes her safe spot.”

What other activities are the students involved in?

Terri: “We take the students fishing and hiking, they gather the blueberries from up in Shames [Mountain]. We have an equestrian riding program. One of the teachers does crafts and sewing. I think that’s all part of the health piece too, because it helps them be healthy; not just eating, but in every way. A lot of them find that when they deal with their anxiety,they feel so much better.”

Laurie: “There is something here for everyone. Maybe you’re the kid that wants to go for a hike, or maybe you’re the kid that wants to cook in the kitchen. They do get excited because it’s taking the classroom outside, it’s not just sitting at a desk.”

People often say that the kitchen is the heart of the home. The staff and students at Parkside Secondary could not agree more! Just like at home, their kitchen wears many hats: it’s a place to build relationships, to learn new skills, to enjoy good food with friends, and most importantly, it’s a place to feel safe and cared for. 

Interested in starting a youth cooking program? Contact a Northern Health Population Health Dietitian for suggestions and resources at 250-631-4265 or PopHthNutrition@NorthernHealth.ca. Or visit the Northern Health Healthy Eating at School webpage.

Emilia Moulechkova

About Emilia Moulechkova

Originally from the Lower Mainland, Emilia started her career with Northern Health as a dietetic intern in 2013. Since then, she has worked in a variety of roles as a Registered Dietitian with the population health team. In her current role, she supports schools across the north in their efforts to promote healthy eating. Emilia is passionate about food’s role in bringing people and communities together, and all the ways it can support physical, mental, and social health. Her overall philosophy on healthy eating can be summarized by this Ellyn Satter quote: “When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers.” In her spare time, she loves exploring the beautiful northern outdoors by foot, skis, bike, or canoe!

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Social and emotional well-being at school: The Bulkey Valley School District supports mental wellness in the classroom

(Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Northern Health’s Healthier You – Summer 2018 edition on Healthy Schools. Read the full issue here.)
Co-authored by Stacie Weich, regional lead for mental wellness & prevention of substance harms, and Taylar Endean, past regional nursing lead for healthy schools.

Children interacting at school.

Social and emotional health in youth is associated with higher academic performance, positive mental health experiences, and better life outcomes. Everyone benefits when we incorporate mental health promotion, prevention, and early identification into schools! Collaborative, sustainable, and informed work in this area will help everyone prioritize wellness in every classroom.

B.C. is making strides towards enhancing the curriculum to reflect and grow social and emotional health, and has introduced a new program that includes social and emotional core competencies. The Bulkley Valley (School District 54) has found an excellent and innovative way to meet that goal: they have hired a Social Emotional Helping Teacher (SEHT).

This teacher driven support begins with a teacher reaching out to the SEHT asking for help. The SEHT meets with the classroom teacher for a planning session on embedding well-being into the curriculum, rather than individual, one-off lessons. They work with teachers and students in collaboration, planning and implementation of the new social emotional curriculum requirements into the classroom. This is done is various ways and is driven by the individual classroom. The SEHT assists in incorporating personal and social responsibility into everyday school activities in different subjects such as Language Arts, Science, Music, Art classes and fields trips. This is done through various methods such as storytelling, identifying personal heroes, bringing music and crafts to seniors homes, caring for the environment, personalized drawings/colouring to identify self-awareness, stressors and stress management.

The WellAhead graphic.

 The SEHT attends 3-4 sessions with the teacher and co-teaches with them, building their capacity, confidence, and skills in these topics!

This resource offers a huge support to the teachers and school staff, and encompasses the Comprehensive School Health Framework. Due to increasing demand, this program has grown from a two to four day per week position!

Moving forward, the Bulkley Valley District and Northern Health have teamed up to engage in a coaching grant opportunity secured through the WellAhead – McConnell Foundation. WellAhead is a national initiative focused on integrating social and emotional well-being into young people’s education for long term change. The McConnell Foundation is a private Canadian foundation that develops and applies innovative approaches to social, cultural, economic, and environmental challenges. Together, these programs connect health and education with expertise and tools that help build plans to enhance the wellness in our region. Granting opportunities can be found on the McConnell Foundation website.

What is your school doing to support social and emotional well-being for the students, teachers and staff? Mental health is truly everyone’s business, so take some time to think about how your school environment is promoting these kinds of wellness. After all, we’re all responsible for ensuring that school is a safe, fun, and healthy environment for all.

Stacie Weich

About Stacie Weich

Stacie Weich is the Regional Mental Wellness and Prevention of Substance Harms Lead for Northern Health’s Population Health team. A passion for people and wellness has driven her to pursue a career in mental health and substance use. The first 10 years of her career were spent at a non-profit in Quesnel. Shen then moved to Prince George to join Northern Health in 2008. Stacie has fulfilled many roles under the mental health and substance use umbrella since then (EPI, ED, NYTC, COAST, AADP, YCOS). In her off time Stacie enjoys spending time with her husband, two daughters, and two dogs, and other family and friends in beautiful northern BC!

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