Opening the door to mental health talks with your kids? Western expert recommends this rabbit

Paula Jesty, founder of M.I. understanding, uses a puppet named Poppy to comfort
Paula Jesty, founder of M.I. understanding, uses a puppet named Poppy to comfort Colin King, director of Western’s Mary J. Wright Child and Youth Development Clinic, which partnered with Jesty for a series of intervention programs for parents and kids. The newest offering, called M.I. friends, sends a mini version of Poppy to families to help prompt conversations. (Christopher Kindratsky/Western Communications)
Poppy the Puppet offers early intervention option for families dealing with children’s mental health challenges By Megan Stacey , March 13, 2023 By Megan Stacey , March 13, 2023 Mental health help and a rabbit puppet may seem an unlikely pair. That’s kind of the point.

Researchers at Western’s Mary J. Wright Child and Youth Development Clinic and mental health advocate Paula Jesty were looking for something unique, fun and accessible to help families dealing with mental health challenges.

Enter Poppy.

The lovable rabbit puppet - reminiscent of Jim Henson’s creations on Sesame Street The Muppets because it was designed by Terry Angus, who used to work for the famous puppeteer - is meant to break down walls for kids and parents, by helping children express their "big feelings" and giving caregivers ideas to navigate those conversations at home.

"When families are struggling, there’s a real gap in care from the time they first struggle to the time they get connected with supports at school or in the hospital. There’s angst and worry," said Colin King, an associate professor of education at Western and director of the Child and Youth Development Clinic. He helped to develop the Poppy program, called M.I. friends. "The program provides a roadmap for things they can try in the interim."

Some families are stuck waiting for services. Others are grappling with the initial discovery of mental illness or its early warning signs. Still others want help dealing with children’s "big feelings" and practising emotional regulation.

Now, thanks to the M.I. friends program and the financial support of community sponsors, those families can turn to Poppy the puppet during times of need - all for free. Jesty hopes it will reach thousands of people - anyone who may need it.

The comfort toy is coupled with educational videos to help teach skills and equip kids and caregivers to handle the sometimes-bumpy journey of mental health and wellness.

M.I. friends stems from M.I. understanding , a communication tool for early mental health intervention and emotional skill-building created by Jesty. It all started with instructional videos to help parents and kids learn new tools to manage anxiety-inducing situations in everyday life, like going on a trip.

It’s used by London hospitals and school boards, reaching thousands of children since 2016. Jesty said she now hears from older kids who remember seeing the puppet characters in their classes.

"When the pandemic hit, parents said ’the videos are great, but we need more,’" Jesty said.

That’s when Poppy took centre stage.

"It’s easy as a parent to get overwhelmed with the emotion of it. Parents very often treat mental health like a broken leg - we’re not going to do anything until we get a chance to see the experts," Jesty said.

M.I. friends is a tool to steer kids through those tough conversations and take the stigma out of mental health issues. Some families delegate to Poppy the task of breaking down the initial walls, Jesty said, telling their children it’s time to grab the toy when anxiety or other challenges emerge.

" It’s this disarming platform that’s fun and engaging. Kids can connect to it, parents as well. It’s designed as a nice safe entry point to get those conversations started," King said.

Being curious and digging deeper into what’s driving certain behaviours are important goals for parents, he said.

Poppy isn’t a substitute for clinical services or professional support.

Instead, the goal is to lay the groundwork for open lines of communication and help families expand their toolboxes so they have what’s needed to navigate tricky ground. That could include everything from mindfulness to emotional regulation, both for parents and kids.

"Parents can have a role in supporting their kids’ big emotions by model l’ing themselves how to stay calm and take those deep breaths," King said.

Poppy is aimed at children under 10, with those in kindergarten and primary school best suited to resonate with the materials and benefit from them.

"That return on investment is much greater early on, when problems are first identified," said King, also a registered school and child clinical psychologist.

"When kids are older, problems become much more intense. It pays dividends to address problems earlier” – Colin King, director of the Mary J. Wright Child and Youth Development Clinic

"It’s about building skill, not will. Kids will do well if they can, but if they can’t, something else is getting in the way," King said.

"Families were able to quickly identify, ’this happens at our house, too,’ or kids would say ’this happens to me, too, when my feelings get really big.’ Kids and caregivers were able to make some really big connections after using the program," King added.

Evaluation of the M.I. friends program is in the early stages now, but hundreds of families have already registered to receive a Poppy puppet and gain access to the video training.

"The essence of this entire project is creating a community of support. We can’t do this alone, we need to work with organizations, we need grandparents and parents supporting each other, we need libraries and schools involved, we need everybody coming together, that’s how we’re going to get on top of this," Jesty said.