Farmer’s wife responds to the call

Providing each child with a wellbeing toolbox is a priority for mental health advocate Pauline Carrigan, co-founder of Where there's a Will.

A not-for-profit organisation, Where there's a Will works with schools and the community to improve mental health and wellbeing in the Upper Hunter. "Where there's a Will is a philosophy," says Ms Carrigan during a visit to St Joseph's Primary School, Denman. "When you feel well, you do well."

Those familiar with Aurora may recall reading about Ms Carrigan in the June 2017 edition. Former editor Tracey Edstein reflected on her encounter with Ms Carrigan, who at the time described herself as a farmer's wife.

But she is much more than that. She is a woman on a mission and a force to be reckoned with. In the three years since that article was published, Where there's a Will has blossomed. The organisation now works in partnership with 21 schools and 16 early education centres across the Upper Hunter, which she describes as being "united with one language and a culture of sharing".

St Joseph’s Principal Helen Whale says her school first became involved with Where there's a Will in 2017. "It provides an opportunity to collaborate, research, discuss, strategise and learn alongside professional colleagues, community members, businesses and some of the world's best positive education gurus,” Ms Whale says. “The prospect of actively increasing mental wellness was and continues to be, too good to refuse."

Ms Carrigan is pleased and buoyed by the support of Upper Hunter schools. "It's so gratifying when I know there's a belief in what we're doing,” says Ms Carrigan. "It was hard in the beginning, it was a bit like selling vacuum cleaners, but now it's the opposite. The weight of the world is lifting off slowly."

The weight to which she relates, in part, is a response to her son's death by suicide in 2015. Will, 24, was successfully running his own electrical business. He had bought a home, had a loving partner, and was cherished by his large extended family – none of whom expected or knew he was experiencing poor mental health. Following Will's death, Ms Carrigan did a deep dive into mental health research with an aim of ensuring a brighter future for the next generation of children, including her grandchildren. Together with her sister Kathy Burns, the duo founded Where there's a Will, with the aim of teaching each child in the Upper Hunter the skills required to thrive and be resilient. The sisters’ vision is to provide children with a “toolbox”.

"No one knows when or if life will throw us a curveball, so we all require knowledge – a toolbox of skills we can refer to, to help us through,” Ms Carrigan says.

"I 100 per cent believe in what we're doing and know that prioritising mental health and educating children on how to use their skills and harness their strengths is the best way forward," she says. "It's a calling; I know someone is telling me to do this."

Ms Carrigan knows she cannot do it alone.

"It's important for the community to prioritise mental health," she says, referencing the adage "it takes a village to raise a child”.

"For this generational change to happen, we must have conversations about wellbeing in our schools, our homes, and our sporting fields. We have to demonstrate the philosophy, and that's what we're empowering our teachers and families to do."

At St Joseph's in Denman, as with other schools and early education centres across the Upper Hunter, staff are adopting the Visible Wellbeing Framework of Professor Lea Waters, which Where there's a Will endorses. This framework uses the SEARCH acronym: Strengths, Emotional management, Attention and awareness, Relationships, Coping and Habits and goals.

The school also implements the Grow Your Mind program, which aims to foster mentally healthy children, families, and teachers.

"Using animal analogies, we introduce children to the basics of neuroscience and what it means to feel mentally healthy,” Ms Whale says. “The children love this program and now recognise the parts of their brain that are in control, helping them to understand better how to identify and manage their emotions."

Staff role-model the lessons and reinforce them throughout all classes.

"We're having discussions that place mental health at the fore as part of our daily routine,” Ms Whale says. “It's not merely a once-a-week lesson, it’s a way of life that we're encouraging every day, both at school and in our students' homes.

"Our students share a common language with peers, teachers and parents that enables them to express how they are feeling and look at strategies for coping with or changing the way they feel."

And, with research showing that unless a child is in a state of wellness, they cannot perform to their potential, Ms Carrigan is hoping other schools will take the Where there's a Will philosophy onboard.

"Students' learning results improve as their mental wellness increases," she says. "You can have everything in the world, but if you don't feel well, it means nothing."

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Lizzie Snedden Image
Lizzie Snedden

Lizzie is Team Leader Content for the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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