The introduction of a Student Wellness Officer role at St. Michael’s College School (SMCS) this academic year is both a novelty and many believe, increasingly, a necessity in academic environments today.
“Our face-paced world is asking a lot of young people; to be successful, well-liked, constantly connected,” says Liat Benzacar, M.S.W., RSW, who joined SMCS as Student Wellness Officer in September 2019. “Creating a safe space in a school for social, emotional, and mindful learning to happen helps support the academic success of our students.”
Benzacar holds a Master of Social Work from the University of Toronto with a specialization in mental health.
“Having expertise in social and emotional awareness and growth is a necessary asset to helping develop the whole child in mind, body, and spirit,” says James McKinnon, Principal at SMCS.
“Working in a school setting is unique and often overlooked – students are spending the majority of their day within the walls of the school,” says Benzacar. “A school approach to mental health has the capacity to shift and enhance the landscape of our classrooms by providing a safe space for students to acquire the practical and interpersonal skills required to foster resilience, focus, wellness, and increased satisfaction.”
She adds, “student success in schools must transcend evaluation to include social and emotional well-being; this awareness and understanding emphasizes the complete learning and growth of students as research supports.”
Benzacar will be one of two featured speakers at the second ParenTalks event of this school year, to be held on October 24. The session will focus on recognizing and responding to anxiety and stress in students.
“School social workers are in a position to be able to observe, record, and support a student through the main hours of their day. We are able to see if their concerns are impacting their functioning academically, socially, emotionally within their family and/or community,” says Benzacar. “By collecting this rich information and developing strong working relationships, schools can help create a space where a student feels supported, can thrive, be self-aware, and build capacity in their everyday lives.”
Having worked in both private and public school settings prior to SMCS, Benzacar, a mother herself, has been responsible for designing mental health curriculum, providing direct-service counselling, facilitating workshops for staff, students, and families, and coordinating referrals to community agencies and services.
She lists, “stress and anxiety, managing school-life balance, dip in mood, and changing families,” as the main reasons students go to see her.
“A diagnosis of anxiety takes into consideration a number of things,” says Benzacar. “When anxious feelings shift from an adaptive response to an amplified reaction that can impact a student’s day-to-day functioning – social, academic, emotional. This might look like, frequent absences, asking to be excused from presentations, grades decline and social interactions, unable to meet expectations, tantrums, constantly asking ‘what if’ and needing to know what’s next. Often, a referral from a general practitioner (GP) or family doctor is where a diagnosis begins. A student and their family may be referred to a psychiatrist or psychologist for an assessment, diagnosis, and specialized treatment and care,” she says.
She will join Dr. Mark Broussenko ’07 MD, a family practitioner and hospitalist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) for the upcoming ParenTalks discussion.
“Our goal as parents is not to stop our children’s worries but to help them establish strategies to help them move through them and find enjoyment,” says Benzacar. “Anxious children can learn patterns of worry from parents who are only trying to help – acting worried, convincing them that ‘nothing bad will happen’, reassuring them with over-detailed schedules. Parents need to imagine themselves steping into the role of ‘coach’ and allow their teenagers to be in the driver's seat of pushing past their uncertainties.” she says.
And as for why she chose this particular career path, Benzacar says, “Deep learning happens when students feel safe as they get comfortable taking risks. By being part of a student’s everyday life, by building clinical as well as community relationships seemed a most natural way to help young people make change.”
ParenTalks will be held on Thursday, October 24, 2019 at St. Michael’s College School. It is open to current parents at SMCS.