What does it mean to be well?

It’s a question that all schools ask. They don’t all arrive at the same answer.

By Glen Herbert

“There is a culture of fixing,” says Tasha Forster, with more than a hint of dismay. “It’s that idea that there is something wrong with you, or that we need to fix you.” 

Her point is that, too often, mental health is considered in the way we might think of, say, a broken bone or a viral infection. “There’s a push to be happy,” she says. “But part of wellness is just being able to name and notice and understand your feelings. To know that it’s OK, and that it’s OK to have challenges.” For her, a better operational definition of wellness is “that feeling of resilience. Can you face challenges, and can you bounce back? Do you have strategies for dealing with stress?” 

Forster arrived at Rosseau Lake College during the pandemic, taking the role of Mental Health & Wellness Coordinator. If there was a time when we all needed to know that it was OK to have challenges, that was certainly it. Through positions with the Peel board, as well as at international schools, she brought nearly two decades of experience of working with young people at a key time in their lives, one when they are actively growing into a sense of themselves and how they relate to the world. 

Throughout her working life, Forster has sought to stretch an understanding of what wellness means, and to broaden the strategies that faculties and students use to address it. Historically, programs of care were located within designated guidance offices, often near the administration suite. The experience of entering care was the same as going to the principal’s office: you went when you were called, and otherwise hoped you weren’t. It was a recipe for issues of mental health to go unnoticed. And, sadly, many were. One of the things that drew Forster to RLC was a chance to really work in contrast to that model. To offer an environment of care, and to build self-awareness and wellness strategies; to help students learn to face challenges, before they arise, and to build resiliency. 

“Just notice”

The culture of RLC, created over the 50 years of its life, was an obvious asset. “I love the way this place just throws its arms around people,” Forster says, and it’s clear that she’s felt that herself. The location is an asset, too. “We’re not overwhelmed by honking horns and busy streets,” something young people particularly need, particularly now. “There’s that serious academic side, but they can actually play with each other, go exploring in the forest, build a fort. They can go for a paddle, swim, jump into the water. That playful side, I think, is so good for them.”

Forster hopes to use that as the background to establishing wellness as a habit in the students’ lives—a behaviour, not a goal—something she reinforces through a range of innovative programs and practices. Many days she leads a mindfulness exercise during the morning school-wide assembly. There she asks everyone, students to administrators, to put distractions aside for a moment to focus on their breath, to notice how they’re feeling, and, as she often says, “to do that without judging.” She wants students to learn that happiness is just one of many feelings they’ll have; it’s not a prize to be won, just as sadness isn’t a failure to rise to the moment. “Just notice your connections to those around you,” she says during a morning assembly, “and to your environment. To everything.”

“Not everyone needs to take a deep breath”

There are larger initiatives as well. One morning we spoke—Forster’s a music teacher as well as an accredited yoga instructor, in addition to her role as wellness lead—she had led a yoga class on the swim dock. It’s hard to imagine a more peaceful place. It was early on a fresh spring day, the sun chasing the last of the morning mist off the lake.  The class was an option offered to students during the first annual Heart and Mind Day, part of both a joint EDI (Equity, Diversion, and Inclusion) and mental health and wellness strategy. Sessions ranged from discussions on resilience and stress, to Karate as a form of meditation, to reading silently with others. For that last one, the session description read, “this is simply time to sit and read, as it is often something we don’t allow ourselves.” 

Implicit in that event was the understanding that different people need different things. “Not everyone needs to take a deep breath,” she says, “Some people, they need something else.” True enough, and, from lifting weights, to scrapbooking, the events of the day underscored that we need to have lots of tools in our tool kits. Some classes offered strategies for dealing with stress, or how to eat well, while others focussed more on the self-awareness piece, and finding ways to just notice. In addition to the yoga, Forster led a session on making sparkle jars, mason jars filled with water, glitter, some beads. “It helps to imagine the brain,” she says, shaking one. “That kind of visual, of what’s happening in your brain when you’re frustrated, or you’re angry, or you’re stressed. And finding the things that work for you to kind of let that settle. Sometimes it helps.” No doubt it does, namely through an ability to approach clinical topics—stressors, as well as the fact that rest is a natural state that our minds will return to—outside of a clinical vocabulary. 

“How do we create a climate of caring?”

There are, of course, formal structures within the counselling program. As we talk, Forster opens a document on her laptop outlining the circle of care. It includes everything you’d expect to see, from health services, to guidance, to academic counselling, to crisis management. It’s telling that students meet with faculty mentors twice a week. That’s a lot, in the grander scheme, and you’d be hard pressed to find a school that offers as consistent a program with such a range of entry points. This is not a school where acute problems go unnoticed or unaddressed.

But there are informal structures as well, with all pointing to a desire to evaluate and re-evaluate best practices, as indicated by a list of questions at the top of the document. “How can we ensure that students, staff and families are aware of the supports available to them?” Others underscore a desire to look further than the obvious. “How do we collaborate with community partners?” 

That they are currently doing all those things and more is no deterrent to considering how they can continue to evolve. While she might not point to it, as we talk, it’s clear that not all questions are weighted equally, and that one stands perhaps slightly ahead of the others: “How do we create a climate of caring?” The need to dig deep didn’t begin with the experience of the pandemic, though it cast it in a brighter light. For many, the COVID experience was a case of not knowing what you have until it’s gone, namely connection, casual daily interactions with others, the feeling of being part of something larger than ourselves. 

“Wellness is different for different people,” says Forster. “But I think it’s that overall sense of, do you feel like you’re in a good spot.” She feels that RLC is particularly well positioned to achieve that in all the ways “being in a good spot” can mean. It’s the environment, and the culture, and the time that students have to just stretch out a bit; to work hard, but also to notice the world around them. The property contributes to that, but it's also because of people like Forster who, despite all the successes of the wellness program, are nevertheless prone to asking all those questions—How do we respond? How do we support? What do we have? What do we need?—and finding new, meaningful ways to answer them.