About Us

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School Mental Health ASSIST (SMH ASSIST) is a provincial implementation support team designed to help Ontario school boards promote student mental health and well-being.

We operate within Open Minds, Healthy Minds: Ontario’s Comprehensive Mental Health and Addictions Strategy, and work with the Ministry of Education to provide school mental health leadership, resources and coaching support.

We employ an implementation science framework to help Ontario’s 72 school boards approach student wellbeing in a way that is systematic, intentional and evidence-based.

SMH ASSIST offers its services directly to school boards via their Mental Health Leadership Team, most often through the Superintendent.

For more detailed information about the theoretical background supporting the SMH ASSIST approach, please see the article posted in the International Journal of Mental Health Promotion, Intentional, explicit, systematic: Implementation and scale-up of effective practices for supporting student mental well-being in Ontario schools.

Our Mission

School Mental Health ASSIST (SMH ASSIST) is a provincial implementation support team designed to help Ontario school boards promote student mental well-being, and to enhance support for students who struggle with mental health and addictions problems, through a focus on leadership, capacity-building, and implementation support.

Our Vision

We imagine a future where Ontario students are flourishing, with a strong sense of belonging at school, fluency in practicing habits that are conducive to mental well-being, and growing competence for managing academic and social/emotional challenges. Further, we imagine a future where Ontario students are surrounded by caring adults and communities who can identify and intervene early when students are struggling with mental health problems.

Our Values/Commitments

School Mental Health ASSIST strives to ensure that supports are:

  • Responsive to the needs of Ontario school boards
  • Evidence-based
  • Implementation-sensitive
  • Aligned with Ontario initiatives, with Education and across sectors
  • Co-created with stakeholders
  • Attentive to issues of scale up and sustainability
  • Sensitive to student and family voice
  • Relevant across regions, official languages and specific populations

School Mental Health ASSIST provides Ontario school boards with leadership, coordination, practical resources and implementation coaching support. Our approach is grounded in implementation science – and a focus on four key principals:

Four Principals of our Approach:

  1. Mental Health Promotion and Prevention
  2. Tiered Intervention
  3. Implementation Stages, Drivers, Cycles, and Teams
  4. Sustainability and Scale Up

1. An Orientation towards Mental Health Promotion and Prevention

The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

School Mental Health ASSIST embraces this positive stance towards mental health. Mental health is not just the absence of illness and, in fact, even those who are mentally ill can experience a sense of positive mental well-being.

2. Adoption of a Tiered Intervention Framework

Tiered intervention frameworks are foundational for organizing school mental health activities. These frameworks help us to see the full continuum of service needed to ensure the best possible mental well-being for students. School Mental Health ASSIST has adopted a framework that includes:

  • mental health promotion for all students (universal mental health promotion),
  • preventive interventions for students at risk (targeted prevention), and
  • more intensive therapy for the most vulnerable students (selected/clinical intervention)

Further, we believe that in order to ensure that students receive the services that they need, when they need them, a cross-sectoral systems approach is required.

3. Focus on Implementation Stages, Drivers, Cycles, and Teams

Bringing research-based mental health programming to life in school systems requires much more than simply hosting events or awareness-building campaigns, providing staff training workshops, or purchasing a set of materials. In fact, sometimes one-off efforts like this can be detrimental, particularly for vulnerable students. Instead, a systematic and organized plan is required, so that foundations for sustainable programming can be put into place. The National Implementation Research Network (NIRN) outlines several key ingredients for optimal implementation. These include:

  • Implementation stages (the typical phases of the implementation process)
  • Implementation drivers (known best practices for promoting effective implementation)
  • Implementation cycles (iterative cycles that promote continuous improvement)
  • Implementation teams (groups with expertise in implementation methods that coordinate effective programs and strategies).

School Mental Health ASSIST has used these foundational concepts from implementation science to create a “made-in-Ontario” approach to bringing effective school mental health practices to scale across our 72 school districts.

4. Explicit Attention to Sustainability and Scale Up

The Ontario Ministry of Education aims to “reach every student” in its vision of Achieving Excellence. We take this seriously within School Mental Health ASSIST and believe that every student should have access to high-quality programming that helps build their social-emotional skills for success in life. Safe and accepting schools should help students adopt healthy attitudes

towards mental well-being and habits that inspire resilience. When students struggle with their emotions or behavior, they should have access to evidence-based services, wherever they live.

Explicit Attention to Sustainability and Scale UpToo often, mental health promotion and prevention depends on local champions, pilot programs and temporary funding. For-profit programs can be costly and difficult to scale up or sustain over time. At the same time, schools are inundated with kits, books, speakers and videos designed to enhance student mental well-being – but these resources may not be supported by evidence or aligned with other initiatives in Ontario.

This results in a fragmented state of mental well-being programming in schools. Similar to work that is enhancing community services for vulnerable students (Moving on Mental Health), School Mental Health ASSIST seeks to make available high-quality mental health promotion and prevention programming for every Ontario student. We work to ensure programming uses an effective evidence-based approach; we are also sensitive to implementation, so that we embed programming in daily school life, rather than give teachers an add-on to try to fit into their practice.

This embedded approach will take time, but we are helping Mental Health Leadership Teams make sounds decisions when selecting programs.  We encourage Ontario school boards to think about scale up and sustainability. School mental health is complex works – and it cannot be solved with a single ‘quick fix.’

Laying a Foundation: Strategy in 2011-2014

The School Mental Health ASSIST strategy in 2011-2014 focussed on:

  • introducing organizational conditions
  • providing resources to support audience-specific capacity-building
  • preparing for evidence-based programming in schools

This foundational work focused on preparing school boards for the slow and steady work required to ensure sustainable school mental health activities. Every school board was required to create a three-year Board Mental Health Strategy and a one-year Action Plan. It was recommended that these follow the School Mental Health ASSIST example by beginning with a focus on consolidating the Top 10 organizational conditions. Many school boards are now well-positioned to begin to systematically bring professional learning and student programming to the school and classroom. Each board is doing this in a unique way in alignment with their own strategy and action plan.

Moving Forward: Strategy in 2014-2017

The School Mental Health ASSIST 2014-2017 Strategy builds upon this foundational provincial work and extends it along five strands. Each strand is outlined below. Find more detail in the Technical Brief on the School Mental Health ASSIST Strategy. {LINk}

Moving Forward: Strategy in 2014-2017

Implementation Backbone Strand

This strand of work is focused on making implementation science explicit in our day-to-day work. We are consolidating the School Mental Health ASSIST implementation methodology, and aim to contribute to the growing literature in this area. Principles of implementation coaching have been drawn together into a tailored approach, with an accompanying coaching manual, tools and resources. Related activities – like communication planning, knowledge translation, and quality assurance/evaluation efforts – are also part of this strand of work.

Conditions and Capacity Strand

In this strand, the focus is on setting organizational conditions and building capacity among education professionals. Focused work with senior administrators (Directors and Superintendents of Education), and with school leaders (Principals and Vice-Principals) are a key part of this strand in 2014-2017. In addition, a number of facilitated learning materials that align with Supporting Minds, have been developed to build the mental health literacy of educators. Find sample material on our Resources [LINK] page. Each module includes a multimedia overview, an Ask the Expert video, slides, table activities and links to resources. Modules are created to be delivered in consultation with the Board Mental Health Leader. Finally, expertise-level offerings for school mental health professionals help to ensure that Board Mental Health Leaders have support in managing our most vulnerable students.

Evidence-Based Programming Strand

School Mental Health ASSIST favours co-ordinated, evidence-based, implementation-sensitive, programming that is poised for scale up and sustainability. This departs from traditional menu-driven approaches to evidence-based practice that can be costly and difficult to sustain to scale. We have created a set of decision support tools to help with the selection of programming. [LINK] We are also engaged in several pilots designed to develop, test and share high-quality material rooted in core elements of proven programs.

Specific Populations Strand

In our first three years, we embraced principles and approaches aimed at a universal audience while recognizing that specific populations would have more specific needs. In 2014-2017, we are exploring these needs more explicitly, with the help of partners with specific expertise. The following populations have been selected for our initial focus:

  • Early Years Mental Health
  • Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, or Questioning (LGBTQ) Mental Health
  • Indigenous Mental Health

This strand of work also includes intentional and systematic work with youth and families. For example, the Youth Engaging Students (YES!) Team has been developed to help School Mental Health ASSIST reflect a youth voice. This team will launch in 2015 and will carry out a number of youth-led projects designed to promote positive well-being and enhance schools for students struggling with mental health.

System Co-ordination Strand

Open Minds, Healthy Minds is a transformative policy direction that includes many sectors united to enhance the mental health of all Ontarians. The education sector’s important role relates to mental health promotion, prevention and early intervention. But this work must be aligned and integrated with the work of the Ministry of Children and Youth Services and the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. This system co-ordination strand of the 2014-2017 School Mental Health ASSIST strategy fosters helpful pathways to, from and through the system of care for students and their families. It also connects to post-secondary destinations and school mental health work at the provincial, national, and international levels.

We hope that you will take the time to reach out to the School Mental Health ASSIST Team for questions about our initiative. Please also contact your Board lead with district-specific inquiries.

Region Coaches
Barrie Alexandra Fortier – afortier@smh-assist.ca
Louise Moreau – lmoreau@smh-assist.ca
London Alexandra Fortier – afortier@smh-assist.ca
Lesley Cunningham – lcunningham@smh-assist.ca
Janice Tomlinson – jtomlinson@smh-assist.ca
Ottawa Andréanne Fleck Saito – aflecksaito@smh-assist.ca
Charlotte Patterson – cpatterson@smh-assist.ca
Sudbury Alexandra Fortier – afortier@smh-assist.ca
Barry Finlay – bfinlay@smh-assist.ca
Toronto Andréanne Fleck Saito – aflecksaito@smh-assist.ca
Jacquie Brown – jbrown@smh-assist.ca
Thunder Bay Andréanne Fleck Saito – aflecksaito@smh-assist.ca
Bruce Ferguson – bferguson@smh-assist.ca


Kathy Short, Ph.D., C.Psych. Email

Director, School Mental Health ASSIST

Kathy ShortDr. Kathy Short is a Clinical Child Psychologist with research and practice interests that focus primarily on school mental health promotion, knowledge mobilization and implementation science. Before becoming director of School Mental Health ASSIST, she spent 12 years as the Manager for the Evidence-Based Education and Services Team (E-BEST) at Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. While at E-BEST, she was appointed to the Ontario Education Research Panel and chaired the School-University Research Exchange. Dr. Short is also a member of the national School-Based Mental Health and Substance Abuse Consortium, and led the Knowledge Translation and Exchange Team for this association of Canadian researchers and school mental health practitioners on a national project for the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Dr. Short chairs the newly formed School Mental Health International Leadership Exchange (SMHILE), a network of global leaders focused on key themes in student mental health promotion. She was recently appointed to the Mental Health and Addictions Leadership Advisory Council for the province, and is the Chair for the Mental Health Promotion, Prevention, and Early Intervention Work Group for the Council.

Gail McVey

Gail McVey, Ph.D, C.Psych

Gail McVeyDr. McVey is a Clinical Psychologist who has carried out a 17-year program of school-based intervention research and published longitudinal studies on the prevention of eating disorders using a mental health promotion and comprehensive school health framework.  During her research career, attention has been given to program development, community capacity building and partnership development, as well as implementation and knowledge translation planning. McVey spent over 15 years as a Health Systems Research Scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children. Her expertise has allowed her the opportunity to advise provincial resource centres, governments, and provincial health authorities across Canada on matters related to curriculum, program and policy development related to mental health promotion, body image, eating disorders, healthy eating and healthy living.

McVey is director of the Ontario Community Outreach Program for Eating Disorders, a community-based clinical training program in evidence-based treatment and prevention of eating disorders. She  serves as associate professor in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, and as core steering committee member for the Ontario Healthy Schools Coalition. McVey’s leadership in the area of eating disorders has been formally recognized by the Ontario Government – including the Ontario Premier’s Office and the Ontario Ministry of Long Term Care.  She was awarded the status of fellow by the International Academy of Eating Disorders in recognition of her distinguished contributions in research-based scholarship, clinical practice and advocacy.

Jacquie Brown, MES RSW

Jacquie BrownImplementation Coach, School Mental Health ASSIST

Jacquie is Head of International Development, Triple P International, and an independent international implementation consultant and facilitator. Jacquie brings 25 years of experience in management and implementation of EBPs for children, youth and families in the mental health, health care and education sectors. Her most recent work includes the development of implementation frameworks for complex initiatives. Recent initiatives include: the TPI Implementation Framework; implementation of Triple P in Kenya, South Africa, Turkey, North America and Europe; Implementation Coach to support a system-wide framework for implementation of evidence-based programmes and best practices in the Ontario Education system, Canada; facilitating the development of an implementation framework and the development of a “backbone organisation” for implementing best practices in spinal cord injury rehabilitation in the health care system across Canada.

Charlotte Patterson

Charlotte Patterson bio pictureCharlotte Patterson served as a teacher, principal, superintendent and director of education in the Upper Canada District School Board.  Throughout her career in public education,  Charlotte supported students and their families in realizing successful outcomes.  As Superintendent of Schools, Charlotte worked effectively with community agencies throughout eastern Ontario to advocate for student well-being.  In the role of Superintendent of Human Resources, she led the attainment of Excellence Canada’s Healthy Workplace-Platinum Award which recognized the school board’s commitment to supporting employee well-being.  As a senior leader, Charlotte has had extensive experience in determining strategy, leading and coaching people and effecting change in a complex organization.  Charlotte completed her career as Director of Education for the UCDSB.  In this capacity, she broadened her understanding of governance, championed student learning and well-being and built collaborative relationships throughout the school board and across the province.
Charlotte has served as a board member of the Brockville and Area YMCA and currently serves on the Board of Governors of the Brockville General Hospital.  In retirement, Charlotte has returned to her passion for choral music and sings in the Brockville Community Choir.

Lesley Cunningham, MSW, RSW

Lesley CunninghamImplementation Coach, School Mental Health ASSIST

Lesley was a social worker with the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board where she worked for 29 years. Prior to this Lesley worked in both the Child Welfare and Children’s Mental Health systems. During the last 12 years of her tenure at HWDSB she was responsible for bullying and violence prevention programming across the system. Lesley has been extensively involved in the development, implementation and evaluation of conflict resolution, bullying/violence prevention, social skills and depression prevention programs within the school system and has presented numerous workshops on these topics both within Canada and internationally. She has co authored several book chapters and numerous articles in peer reviewed journals in the area of bullying prevention, social skills and peer mediation.

Barry Finlay

Barry FinlayDuring the past 40 years in education, Barry has been a special education teacher and department head, a secondary vice-principal in two schools, a principal in 3 schools – one of which was for children with special education needs and another secondary school where he was the founding principal. He was Superintendent of Curriculum for three years and then Associate Director of Education in the Halton District School Board for three years. He recently retired after nine years at the Ministry of Education in the role of Director, Special Education Policy and Programs Branch. In addition, he has consulted extensively across the province as well as in the U.S. and England on many educational issues including special education.

In the role of Director, Special Education Policy and Program Branch, he was responsible for all aspects of policy, programs and services and the approximate $2.72 B funding for special education pertaining to District School Boards, Care / Treatment and Custody and Corrections Programs, and Hospital Programs. The Special Education Grant and related legislation serve the approximately 330,000 students receiving special education programs and services in the Province of Ontario.

In addition, his responsibilities included the role of the Ministry of Education in the provincial Mental Health Strategy. As a result of this experience, he is pleased to be joining the ASSIST team.

Bruce Ferguson, Ph.D., C.Psych.

Bruce FergusonImplementation Coach, School Mental Health ASSIST

Dr. Ferguson is a Senior Consultant and the founding Director of the Community Health Systems Resource Group (now Child and Youth Mental Health Research Unit) at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids). He is also a Professor of Psychiatry, Psychology and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto and has been a Visiting Scientist at the Biological Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health in the United States. He taught psychology at Carleton University before moving to the health care system at the Royal Ottawa Hospital and the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry. Dr. Ferguson received his doctorate in Psychology at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

Andréanne Fleck Saito, BSW, RSW  

Andreanna Fleck-SaitoImplementation coach

Andréanne is a social worker with current interest in Solution Focused Brief Coaching as an innovative evidence-based approach to creating positive personal, group and organizational change! Prior to becoming an implementation coach with SMH ASSIST, Andréanne worked for several years as a social worker at Conseil Scolaire du District Catholique centre-sud. Her involvement in the CYMH field stems from early days in her career providing individual and family supports for children and youth with autism and dual diagnoses in residential and clinical care. Her love for travel and adventure led her to Japan where she coordinated province-wide supports and community of practice opportunities for non-Japanese English teachers. More recently, as French language consultant with the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health, she contributed to the knowledge mobilisation strategy, specifically with respect to implementation and evaluation of evidence-informed practices for Francophone communities. She is an active member of the Ontario Association of Social Workers, School Social Work Committee and currently acts as liaison with the Ministry of Education.

Alexandra Fortier, MSS, RSW

Alexandra Fortier
Implementation Coach, French Language, School Mental Health ASSIST

Alexandra Fortier is an Implementation and Leadership Coach, with School Mental Health ASSIST. In her role, she contributes to Ontario’s Comprehensive Mental Health and Addictions Strategy. Through direct coaching and support, to school boards in the province, she helps to embed an organizational culture shift that promotes the mental health and well-being for all.

Formally Director of Day Treatment programs, her experience varies from systemic intervention of incestuous sexual abuse, Children’s Aid, families in Crisis, as well as Clinical and Program Supervision. In addition, she is a seasoned speaker on various topics, including Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma.

Louise Moreau

Implementation Coach, School Mental Health ASSIST

Louise MoreauLouise is a well-respected educator who has held a number of roles during her 36 years in education including teacher, consultant, vice principal, principal, Superintendent of Schools and Superintendent of Student Services including special education. She has worked in many capacities to support programs for students with special needs in diverse populations, including teaching, leadership, research and writing. In addition to her school board experience, Louise has been an Education Officer with the Ontario Ministry of Education, where she worked with other Ministries in the development and implementation of policies and materials integral to meeting the needs of students with needs. In recent years, she has spent considerable time working with community and system partners, looking at collaborative and innovative ways of implementing system change, that make the best use of available resources in meeting the needs of children and youth.

Janice Tomlinson, Ph.D., C.Psych.

Implementation Coach, School Mental Health ASSIST

Janice TomlinsonDr. Janice Tomlinson is a psychologist and educator. She has worked in the educational field as a psychologist, teacher, special educational co-ordinator, principal, university instructor and superintendent. Her most recent role was as Superintendent of Student Services with Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. She has also served on Inter-Governmental committees, including the Provincial Acquired Brain Injury Committee and the Ministers’ Autism Spectrum Disorders Reference Group. In 2001, she was the recipient of the Irene Mackowski Leadership Award from the Ontario Council for Exceptional Children. She serves on the Board of the Dundas Living Centre which promotes choice for adults with developmental disabilities, and has a private practice in Hamilton.

Presentation of district leaders

Every Ontario school board has a leader and superintendent mental health that have joint responsibility for creating and implementing the mental health strategy and action plan for their school board. Please see contact details below to find out the person with whom contact regarding questions about mental health within your school board.