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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

Educators play many roles and are increasingly called on to support youth mental health. Organizations are responding by equipping teachers with Mental Health First Aid training and tools.

In Canada, mental illness affects more than 1.2 million children and youth. By the time they reach age 25, that number rises more than six-fold to 7.5 million. These figures show just how much the early years provide the foundation for mental health and resilience throughout a person’s life. Since the start of the pandemic, concern over the mental well-being of youth has increasingly been a topic of discussion, particularly with the disruption of their routines.

Yet, as young people navigated from online school and back to in-person classes, the enormous pressure teachers have felt to develop additional skills for handling this mental health crisis has also affected their well-being. According to a June 2021 University of British Columbia survey, about 80 per cent of teachers reported experiencing moderate (56.7%) or serious (22.9%) mental distress.

As a result, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and the government of Saskatchewan have been investing in mental health training to give teachers the necessary tools to maintain mental well-being — for themselves and their students.

“As education workers, we work to educate Canada’s future generations,” said Mara Boedo, an executive officer with Toronto Education Workers (TEW), whose 17,000 CUPE members (local 4400) include TDSB employees. “This means that every positive change we can help our members make will impact the students in their care — and this will stay with them for the rest of their lives.”

The TDSB, which serves nearly 250,000 students across the district, has been investing in The Working Mind (TWM) since 2018. The course’s stigma-reduction focus is designed to promote mental health in the workplace by giving participants tools designed to assess their own mental wellness, identify signs and symptoms, and develop healthy coping strategies.

Mara Boedo

Mara Boedo

Teaching the teachers
After taking TWM, one participant’s recovery from mental distress became noticeable to others, including her family doctor, who asked, ‘What are you doing differently?’ “I have a new vision for myself,” she said. Through the course, participants work on changing behaviours and attitudes around mental illness by discussing resiliency, investing in their mental wellness, and exploring stigmatizing attitudes.

The participant was sharing this story with her TWM facilitator Cherill Hiebert, which led her to remark on the importance of teaching others about the small steps anyone can take to improve their mental well-being — rather than waiting until it gets to the point where a person needs professional help.

“That was the most powerful thing I have heard,” Hiebert said. “Without the program, that person would have had no vision because she had no hope.”

For these organizations, TWM signifies a proactive approach to their members’ mental well-being. But what happens when it’s too late for proactive measures? How can teachers prepare for a mental health crisis developing right in front of them? These have been long-standing questions for the Saskatchewan government.

Cherill Hiebert

Cherill Hiebert

Preparing for crisis
In December 2020, Saskatchewan announced a $400,000 commitment to provide Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training to at least one staff member in each school in the province. MHFA enables individuals to provide help for someone who is either developing or going through a worsening mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis. Just like a person might provide physical first aid until medical treatment is available, MHFA is given until appropriate support is found, or the crisis is resolved.

When this funding was announced, Education Minister Dustin Duncan encouraged all the provinces’ school divisions to help remove the stigma around mental health. Such strong ministry support paved the way for coordinating training in 733 schools for 926 staff members. Every division now has MHFA responders with specific knowledge to support youth when they need it.

A hopeful future
These efforts to provide a more inclusive and sustainable approach to mental health in educational environments do not stop there. The National Standard of Canada for Mental Health and Well-Being for Post-Secondary Students, created by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), enables academic institutions to better support students and integrate mental health into their services and systems. A starter kit to help them align their policies with the Standard and reaffirm their commitment to student mental health has now been downloaded more than 2,000 times, in settings of all sizes across the country. The Standard has also helped institutions continue their emphasis on student voices and perspectives, as we’ll see in a video series this fall where students will discuss mental health in post-secondary institutions.

The range of resources the MHCC has developed for the education sector is at the forefront of mental health and well-being for students, teachers, and faculty alike. One other example available to individuals and institutions is The Inquiring Mind Post-Secondary, an evidence-based training program to promote mental health and reduce stigma around mental illness.

Putting the right tools in hands of the people who educate Canada’s youth allows this impact to spread. In reflecting on the training and feedback received from participants, Boedo notes, “We are not only changing people’s lives, but we are also learning to change the way we approach the situations that are outside of our control.” 

MHCC training programs are designed to increase mental health literacy, reduce stigma, and provide skills and knowledge to manage potential or developing mental health problems. To find courses and learn more, visit the MHCC Mental Health Training page.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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