Mental health advocate Sheldon Kennedy and Stu Henry, superintendent of Red Deer public schools (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).

WATCH: Red Deer teachers asked to embrace new classroom role with student mental health

Sheldon Kennedy speaks at public school teacher conference

Sheldon Kennedy told Red Deer public school teachers that they have a vital role to play in promoting student mental health.

The former NHL hockey player and child abuse prevention advocate supports a new Red Deer public schools initiative to get an Alberta Health Services therapist in each school and more teacher mental health training.

Kennedy spoke about the emotional problems that caused him to become a 16-year-old dropout. He was breaking the law and drinking to excess after being sexually abused by his WHL coach, the now convicted predator Graham James.


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Kennedy credited his teacher, “Mrs. Whitney” (who happens to be the mother of former Red Deer Rebel Mike Whitney), for helping him catch up and graduate from high school in Swift Current, Sask.

“Mrs. Whitney understood that something happened to me,” recalled Kennedy, before his talk on Friday at Red Deer Public school teachers’ in-service on mental health at CrossRoads Church.

Although she never specifically asked him what happened, and he never told, “she knew I was struggling, and it was her support that helped get me through school.”

A room-full of Red Deer teachers heard that in some kids’ lives, school is the safest place and their instructors are the most responsible adults. “Teachers have an incredibly important role,” said Kennedy.

Statistics show a strong correlation between child abuse, addictions and mental illness. Abused kids are 26 times more likely to experience homelessness, are four times more likely to inflict self-harm and have suicidal thoughts, and 30 per cent less likely to graduate.

Red Deer public schools Superintendent Stu Henry said his district is working with Alberta Health Services to get a mental health therapist working at each school, starting with high schools and middle schools and moving into elementaries.

It can be hard to get youths to go to a “scary” unfamiliar building for assessment, so why not have an expert available in their own environment, he added.

The role of teachers is now also broadening beyond instructing the ‘three-Rs.’

The district is working with the Respect Group, which offers on-line mental health training. Co-founder Wayne McNeil said programs cover signs of mental illness, as well as how to be pro-active in promoting good mental health.

Student and family education will also be provided. Henry said Grade 1 kids will learn about attachment and middle school students about adversity and becoming more resilient.

He added. “It’s important that our students are well and healthy… and great, contributing members of society.”

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