About School Mental Health ASSIST

What is School Mental Health ASSIST?

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.

What does School Mental Health ASSIST do?

This provincial team provides Ontario’s 72 school boards with leadership and co-ordination, resources and implementation coaching support in the area of school mental health.

How is this support provided?

School Mental Health ASSIST supports Ontario school boards, primarily via the Board Mental Health Leader and Superintendent with responsibility for mental health. SMH ASSIST offers provincial, regional and individualized board coaching in English and French.

What is a Mental Health Leader?

The Board Mental Health Leader is a senior clinician – typically a registered psychologist, psychological associate or social worker – who co-ordinates the development and implementation of the Board Mental Health and Addictions Strategy.

What sorts of resources does School Mental Health ASSIST provide?

SMH ASSIST develops resources, with its education stakeholders, in response to identified needs. Some School Mental Health ASSIST resources support board leadership and decision-making; other resources build capacity for various school board audiences.

How does School Mental Health ASSIST help education professionals support student well-being?

SMH ASSIST provides a continuum of capacity-building resources to help education professionals understand their role in supporting student mental well-being, and in identifying students who may be struggling.

  • Mental health awareness level resources provide basic, practical information appropriate for all education audiences (e.g., office staff, bus drivers, custodians).
  • Mental health literacy resources support school leaders and classroom staff (e.g., principals, teachers).
  • Mental health expertise resources support school mental health professionals (e.g., social workers, psychology staff).

A variety of knowledge sharing vehicles are used to build capacity in school boards, including provincial mental health leadership meetings, webinars and web meetings, and special interest group sessions.

Who leads School Mental Health ASSIST?

A provincial team of Implementation Coaches leads the initiative, in collaboration with the Special Education Policy and Programs Branch of the Ministry of Education as well as partners in other branches and Ministries.

SMH ASSIST Director Dr. Kathy Short is based within Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. Meet the members of the Implementation Coaching Team.

What are the main areas of focus for School Mental Health ASSIST?

In the first three years of the Strategy, 2011-2014, SMH ASSIST focused on helping boards create firm foundations for effective school mental health practices:

  1. Organizational conditions and leadership
  2. Capacity-building for education professionals
  3. Implementation support for school mental health promotion and prevention programming

The next three-year strategic plan, 2014-2017, deepened work in these areas and introduced two new pillars of work:

  1. Differentiated programming for specific populations
  2. System of Care Collaboration

In 2017, Taking Flight, Strategic Directions for 2017-2020 was introduced to acknowledge that system foundations had been set and that, with the help of

  1. Youth and Family Engagement, Voice, and Leadership

school mental health in Ontario was ready to take flight!

How does School Mental Health ASSIST fit with other provincial mental health and addictions initiatives?

SMH ASSIST is committed to continuing to work closely with partners across ministries and initiatives in order to continue to strengthen our part of the system of care for children, youth and families in coming years.

What resources does SMH ASSIST provide to all Ontario school boards?

  1. Leadership modules to support Mental Health Leaders and senior administrators
  2. Ongoing board-specific implementation coaching support
  3. Decision-making tools and templates
  4. Resources that boards can use to support educator mental health awareness and literacy
  5. Resources to support professional learning for school mental health staff
  6. SMH ASSIST presentations and workshops

How were School Mental Health ASSIST services scaled up across the province?

In 2011-2012, 15 school boards were selected to participate alongside SMH ASSIST in developing the framework and supports for future work in Ontario (cohort one). An additional 15 boards joined in 2012-2013 (cohort two). The feedback from these Focus Boards helped to refine the processes and supports for all remaining school boards and school authorities in Ontario who joined the initiative in 2013-2014 (cohort three).

About Student Mental Health

How common are mental health problems in children and youth in Canada?

Surveys consistently demonstrate that about 20 per cent of children and youth (1 in 5) suffer from mental health problems or a diagnosable mental illness.

What are the most common problems seen at school?

School staff report that anxiety and depression are the most common mental illnesses seen at school. Non-suicidal self-injury, eating disorders and alcohol and substance abuse are not uncommon. In addition, generally poor coping skills and a lack of resilience make dealing with stressful events very difficult for many students.

In many cases, students may experience more than one of these conditions. This can result in moderate to marked distress for these students, as well as impaired social and academic functioning.

Are mental health problems increasing amongst children and youth?

While mental health cases are increasing, part of this increase occurs at the same time that we are improving our ability to recognize mental health problems in young people. It does seem clear that many youth today are not as well equipped to face life’s challenges as youth were in the previous decades.

What puts children and youth at risk for mental health problems?

There are a number of contributing factors, including less parental and community support for young people, exposure to more violent and disturbing media, and the over-scheduling of children and the pressures to do more, resulting in less time to ‘just be kids.’

What can protect children and youth from experiencing serious mental health problems?

Some of the factors that protect children and youth from serious mental health problems include: good family relationships; good relationships with peers, teachers, and other adults; a supportive family; good social skills; self-confidence; good coping skills; seeking help and advice when needed; being open to change and new ideas; and being able to bounce back from disappointment and failure.

Are some specific groups of students more at risk than others?

In some cases, mental illness and ill-health are seen in particular families. However, it’s unclear if this is due to heredity, environment or both of these influences. Specific risk factors include: parental psychopathology, experiencing violence and abuse, poor family care, poor communication skills, high impulsivity, poor problem-solving skills, lack of connectedness to school, and engaging in anti-social behaviour.

What are the social determinants of health?

Children and youth generally function well at school, work, home and in the community if they have:

  • good relationships and connections with families, peers and teachers
  • have things to live for
  • experience healthy mood, feelings, thoughts and behavior

What is the role of schools in supporting student mental well-being?

All schools have a responsibility to nurture well-being in their students. They do this through pervasive caring, compassion and understanding of students’ needs. Educators are responsible for universal programs and approaches that serve all students.

What is the role of the school in supporting students with mental health problems?

Many Ontario school boards employ mental health professionals (e.g. psychologists, psychological associates, social workers) who provide assistance and teach coping skills to individual students or groups of students. Additionally, classroom teachers provide accommodations for students based on their physical and psychological needs.

Do all school boards in Ontario have school mental health professionals?

Not all, but those who don’t have in-house staff typically have access to community resources. These boards work collaboratively with agencies and community partners to help students who need specialized care.

Who can I contact to learn more about child and youth mental health?

Each school district employs a Mental Health Leader who can provide additional information. Also, be sure to visit our Resources page.

About School and Classroom Resources

How can schools help support mental well-being for all students?

One major focus in school districts is preventing mental ill-health by promoting class-wide and school-wide programs. Students learn best in classrooms that encourage mental well-being. All school staff can contribute to this by sharing information about mental health with students, as well as by teaching social-emotional learning skills.

How can schools support students at risk for mental health problems?

One role of school staff is to recognize when students are struggling and to help these students get the supports they need. This process is made easier when educators know the contacts for interventions and can act early to prevent minor problems from becoming more serious.

How can schools help students experiencing a significant mental health problem?

Adults should notice when students are struggling and consult with colleagues and mental health professionals. School staff can also support students by being active listeners, accommodating student needs with flexible expectations and requirements, remaining optimistic and by communicating with parents.

Staff can promote positive mental health strategies in the classroom, throughout the school, and in the broader community, and provide information to students and parents about mental health, and about resources within the school district and in the community at large.

On an interpersonal level, staff can also demonstrate wellness by taking care of themselves, as well as by building social-emotional skills in students and demonstrating genuine caring.

Are there any practices to avoid because they may cause harm?

Yes. Harmful behaviours include:

  • Providing incorrect information to others.
  • Introducing specific mental illness information without ensuring appropriate support for students who are at risk.
  • Equating mental ill-health and illness with weakness or character flaws.
  • Using language which further stigmatizes and isolates those people who are suffering from mental ill-health or illness.
  • Attempting to diagnose mental illness without proper qualifications. Only psychologists, psychological associates and physicians can diagnose mental illness. Others who do so can cause significant harm, and risk severe financial penalties. For this reason, school staff must clearly describe their observations of students without implying that they are explaining the cause of the observed behaviour.

Is it dangerous to talk about mental health with young people?

Not at all. Talking about mental health reduces stigma, signals that you are OK with the topic and provides a safe zone for student with concerns or needs. We all strive to be mentally healthy; it’s similar to how we seek physical health. We can talk openly about mental health, as well as physical health.

How do Ontario schools support student mental well-being?

Extensive programs happening are in classrooms, whole schools, and school districts. These are both universal approaches, intended for a general audience, as well as targeted programs for those with more specific needs.

It is an encouraging time for mental health in education. Today’s school staff are more aware than ever about mental ill-health. Some school staff have a strong degree of mental health literacy. In addition, school districts are building the expertise of mental health professionals who work in schools.

About Getting Help

As a parent, what signs should I watch for if I suspect my child has a mental health problem?

  • Decline in your child’s ability to function at school
  • Distress that you would consider moderate or marked
  • A poor ability to cope with life.

Additional warning signs include: Agitation, confusion, poor mood control, poor self-regulation and significant changes in behaviour at home and school.

What are the main warning signs for suicidal behaviour?

Students who are thinking of suicide often express feelings of hopelessness. Their sleeping, eating and activity levels often change. They often withdraw from friends and family. They may skip school, talk about death or suicide, and may take engage in risky behaviours.

What should I do if my child shows some of these signs?

Seek immediate help from a mental health professional (i.e. psychologist, psychological associate, social worker, psychiatrist) or a family doctor.

Additional steps to take include:

  • Actively listen to the child
  • Ask questions, including asking directly if they are thinking about ending their life.
  • Do not judge or downplay the concerns, and don’t be defensive.
  • Increase the child’s support network and provide access to community supports.
  • Assure the child that you will do everything possible to provide support and instill a feeling of hopefulness

I’m worried that my child might have a mental health problem. Where can I get help?.

To start, talk to your child’s teacher(s) and school principal. Your family doctor may also be a valuable resource.

Mental health professionals within your school district or community (psychologists, psychological associates, social workers) can help distinguish between normal and problematic behaviour. Problems assessed and treated early have better outcomes.

What support can I expect at school if my child has a mental health problem?

This will vary from school to school and teacher to teacher. Parents can be strong advocates for their children if they are very clear with school staff about their children’s needs and what supports their child needs to be successful at school.

Who can I contact in my child’s school board to learn more about services and supports?

The district’s Mental Health Leader serves in a co-ordinating role for all mental health services within the school district. Find a list of school board contacts on our Contact page.