The Words we use
When we talk about “mental health,” some people think about serious mental illnesses and disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
But we all should strive for mental health – it means we are flourishing!
Mental well-being encourages individuals to explore, take healthy risks, overcome adversity and contribute to the world around them.
School Mental Health ASSIST believes that mental health is more than just the absence of illness. Well-being can be enhanced and nurtured through positive mental health promotion and prevention. Schools are excellent places to build the skills, attitudes, knowledge and habits that support mental well-being for ALL students.
So, what is mental health?
There are many ways to define mental health and well-being, but we can find some particularly thoughtful insight in the 2015 First Nations Mental Wellness Continuum Framework. Here, mental well-being is seen as “a balance of the mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional” that gives everyone – even the most vulnerable or mentally ill – an opportunity to live as a whole and healthy individual.
Brief video from the Health Promotion Resource Centre at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) offers a “shared language” when talking about mental health and well-being.
The framework explains that this balance is enhanced when people feel like their lives have a purpose, they have hope for their future, they feel a sense of belonging and connectedness, and they have a meaning and understanding of how their lives are part of creation and a rich history. This approach is foundational for Canada’s Indigenous people, but everyone can benefit from this intentional and balanced view.
The language we use when talking about mental health does matter.
Mental Health is for Everyone
Mental health is a positive state of flourishing – and it belongs to everyone! When students are mentally healthy, they feel happy, safe and cared for. They are ready to learn.
To illustrate how mental health looks for various students, we use the organizing principle of tiers. Tier 1 refers to all students; Tier 2 refers to some students; and Tier 3 refers to few students. Here is how all three tiers can be considered when approaching mental health promotion, prevention and intervention.
All kids benefit when they develop skills that help them navigate life’s challenges and opportunities. These skills can be taught by parents, coaches, faith leaders and peers; but research shows that school can also teach and model these important skills. Schools can teach – in a structured and systematic way – skills like how to solve problems, resolve conflict, make decisions, find help and cope with stress. We know from research that this type of social-emotional learning also improves academic performance. It’s clear than mental well-being matters for all students – and this is embedded in Ontario’s vision for students, Achieving Excellence.
While all students benefit from learning the skills, attitudes, knowledge and habits associated with well-being, more is needed by students at risk of developing mental health problems. Sometimes students are genetically predisposed to having a mental health problem (e.g., family history of bipolar disorder). Sometimes mental health difficulties arise from chronic or acute circumstances. Mental health problems are associated with the social determinants of health – the things that make us healthy, or not – such as poverty, discrimination and education. Without support, these students are likely to struggle with school performance, social relationships, future opportunities and more. This is why is it is important to identify the students who are at risk early – and provide extra support to help them along the way.
Some students need even more support. One in five students in Canada suffers from problems that interfere with daily academic, social and emotional functioning. We may see these problems in disruptive behavior, anger, and truancy; or, students may experience these problems inwardly, making them hard to detect. Students who are clinically anxious or depressed may withdraw from school life, quickly escalating their problems. Sometimes, mental health problems are life threatening – and the statistics about youth suicide in Canada are troubling. Fortunately, we can help. Vulnerable students need more intensive intervention, at school and in community or hospital settings. Caring educators can help vulnerable students to, from and through the services they need.
The Role of the School
Now we understand that mental health is positive state of flourishing, and that students may have diverse needs that must be addressed with various tiers of support.
So, what can schools do?
Schools have a critical role in student mental well-being – and this has been made a key pillar in Ontario’s renewed vision for education, Achieving Excellence.
Schools can promote mental health among students in at least four ways, as shown by the Aligned and Integrated Model (AIM) for Mental Well-Being at School:
TEACH – At school, students can learn the skills, attitudes, knowledge and habits that build their personal resilience.
NOTICE – Caring adults at school can learn how to notice students who may be struggling with mental health.
PARTNER – By guiding them through clear pathways to care, school personnel can help families with mental health assessments and treatment services.
In Ontario, schools have been working on building safe and accepting school environments for many years. Many mental health activities build on this and can be taught as part of regular instruction. For example, recent enhancements to the Health and Physical Education curriculum in Ontario provide an excellent opportunity for enhancing skills and mental health literacy in the classroom. School Mental Health ASSIST’s work aligns with these efforts to create safe, health and accepting school environments, and the healthy active living skills for positive social and emotional development.
Educators have an important role in supporting student mental well-being – but they are not expected to become mental health professionals!
Educators are the eyes, ears and hearts that support the well-being of all students, while noticing when some students may need more help. Our work with schools complements efforts in other sectors. This means we have a system of care for children, youth and families. This interplay between education and community resources is illustrated in the graphic, Cross-Sectoral Tiered Intervention Framework.
Some examples of ways that school districts can support mental health for everyone include: providing positive school and classroom environments, explicitly promoting social emotional skill development and equipping staff and students with mental health literacy.
One way that school districts may support targeted students at risk is through enhanced doses of skill development as a form of preventive intervention. For example, this may include anxiety management sessions. School mental health professionals, like school social workers and school psychological consultants, are particularly well-placed to offer prevention services.
Students experiencing more serious behavioral and emotional difficulties may need clinical services. School mental health professionals can serve a crucial role with our most vulnerable students as well, through initial assessment, crisis response, transitions to, through, and from community services, and ongoing consultation and support in the classroom. As the Ministry of Children and Youth Services engages in system transformation through Moving on Mental Health, School Mental Health ASSIST works across sectors to ensure that pathways to care are clear and easy to navigate.
Finding Best Practices
Schools in Ontario are flooded with products, speakers, videos and books that claim to address their students’ mental health needs. It can be hard to know where to start – and the risks of choosing untested but well-intentioned resources for vulnerable students are real.
Fortunately, we have evidence about what works in school mental health. To start, you can view the following reports on our Resources page: Mental Health Commission of Canada’s School Based Mental Health and Substance Use Consortium final report on the state of school mental health in our country, and Taking Mental Health to School, a paper from the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health).
As learn more about this important topic, School Mental Health can help school boards find the evidence they need to make good decisions about programming to meet their needs. Our Decision Support Tools are helping Ontario school boards and schools select programming for mental health awareness, mental health literacy, and mental health promotion programming.
School mental health matters – and School Board Mental Health Leaders are in an excellent position to help schools choose high-yield programming that is informed by evidence and suited to their local context. If you are planning to introduce an event, resource or program at your school, please consult your school board’s Mental Health Leader for support.