Perspectives

Teachers' perspectives on student mental health in Canadian schools

By Bernie Froese-Germain and Richard Riel
June 27, 2012

Student mental health is an emerging issue for Canadian teachers as indicated by these sample comments from the CTF national teacher survey on the Teacher Voice conducted in Spring 2011. When asked about the most significant challenge influencing students’ ability to succeed in school, one teacher respondent noted:

   I am seeing mental health issues more frequently impacting student performance.

When asked what changes they would make to the public education system for the benefit of student learning, this respondent noted:

   Availability of mental health professionals who specialize in work with children and are attached to schools.

In February 2012 the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, working in collaboration with the Mental Health Commission of Canada, set out to further explore these issues by conducting a national online survey of teachers in English and French schools. The sample teacher pool was drawn from participating CTF Member organizations. Teachers from CTF Member organizations were invited by email to participate in the survey (response rates are not available as it was not possible to track the number of successful invitations sent). Over 3,900 teachers responded to the survey including 2,324 elementary school teachers and 1,603 secondary school teachers. Respondents to the survey included 2,634 teachers in English schools (including immersion) and 1,102 teachers in French as a first language schools. 

The purpose of the survey was to gain a better understanding of the teacher perspective on issues related to student mental health and well-being in Canadian schools, including teachers’ perceptions of factors that act as potential barriers to the provision of mental health services for students in their schools (such as stigma for example). Teachers were also asked about their level of preparedness to address the mental health issues that they may face.

For the purposes of the survey, the term student mental health refers to the social, emotional, and behavioural well-being of children and adolescents, and is considered an integral part of healthy development.

These are selected findings from the national survey.

Pressing concerns related to student mental health

Teachers were asked to identify the extent to which a number of mental health-related problems were considered to be a pressing concern in their school. These included anxiety disorders (such as compulsive disorders); attention deficit disorders (ADD/ADHD); bipolar mood disorders; depressive disorders; eating disorders; schizophrenia; learning disabilities (such as autism spectrum disorder and dyslexia); substance use disorders (misuse of alcohol and illicit drugs); and stress (feeling over-stressed). Some brief definitions were also provided.

Among the most pressing concerns identified by respondents were attention deficit disorders, learning disabilities, stress, and anxiety disorders. Specifically,

  • 9 in 10 teachers surveyed agreed that attention deficit disorders (ADD) and attention hyperactivity disorders (ADHD), as well as learning disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder and dyslexia were pressing concerns in their school.
  • 79% of teachers agreed that stress (i.e. students feeling over-stressed) was a pressing concern, including one-third who “strongly” agreed.
  • 73% of teachers agreed that anxiety disorders were a pressing concern, including 24% who “strongly” agreed.
  • In addition a majority of teachers (59%) agreed that depression disorders were a pressing concern, including 16% who “strongly” agreed.

Chart 1: Pressing concerns related to student mental health identified by teachers

Mental health services for students relative to their formal identification status

In order to obtain a general sense of the proportion of students receiving or requiring mental health services, teachers were asked to provide a rough estimate of the percentage of students they teach who:

  • are currently receiving mental health intervention services as a result of a formal identification of an illness.
  • have been formally identified as having a mental illness but have yet to receive services.
  • may require mental health prevention or intervention services but have yet to be identified.

According to the survey,

  • over a quarter of teachers surveyed (27%) reported that at least 10% of the students they teach currently receive mental health intervention services as a result of a formal identification of an illness.
  • nearly a quarter of teachers (23%) reported that at least 10% of the students they teach have been formally identified as having a mental illness but have yet to receive services.
  • half of teachers reported that at least 10% of the students they teach may require mental health prevention or intervention services but have yet to be identified.

Barriers to mental health service provision for students

Teachers were asked to identify the extent to which they felt different factors acted as potential barriers to the provision of mental health services for the students in their school:

  • administrative/resource allocation-related factors
  • personal/socio-cultural factors (including stigma)

  • 87% of teachers surveyed agreed that a lack of adequate staff training in dealing with children’s mental illness is a potential barrier to providing mental health services for students in their school, including 52% who “strongly” agreed.
  • 85% of teachers agreed that a lack of funding for school-based mental health services is a potential barrier, including 59% who “strongly” agreed.
  • 78% of teachers agreed that an insufficient number of community-based mental health professionals is a potential barrier, including 45% who “strongly” agreed.
  • Three-quarters of teachers (75%) agreed that a lack of coordinated services between the school and community is a potential barrier, including 38% who “strongly” agreed.
  • Two-thirds of teachers (67%) agreed that a lack of referral options in the community is a potential barrier, including 34% who “strongly” agreed.
  • Just over half (54%) of teachers agreed that “addressing mental illness is not considered a role/priority of the school” is a potential barrier to providing mental health services for students in their school, including 24% who “strongly” agreed.

Chart 2: Majority of teachers consider surveyed factors potential barriers to student mental health service provision

Regarding personal/socio-cultural factors, the issue most frequently reported by teachers (77%) as a potential barrier to student mental health service provision was the difficulty in identifying children with a mental illness.

Among the other findings:

  • Two-thirds of teachers surveyed (67%) agreed that stigma (negative attitudes or unfair treatment) associated with receiving mental health services is a potential barrier, including 27% who “strongly” agreed. Secondary school teachers, teachers in English schools, teachers with more teaching experience, and teachers in larger schools were all more inclined to agree that stigma is a potential barrier to mental health service provision for their students.
  • 62% of teachers agreed that lack of coordination between the school and the parents is a potential barrier, including 18% who “strongly” agreed.
  • 43% of teachers agreed that language and cultural barriers associated with culturally diverse students is a potential barrier, including 15% who “strongly” agreed.

Chart 3: Over three-quarters of teachers surveyed agree that difficulty identifying children with a mental illness is a potential barrier to student mental health service provision

Bullying of students with mental illness

Unfortunately the stigma attached to mental illness can result in negative consequences for students such as bullying. Teachers were asked how frequently they have seen a student being treated unfairly, bullied or teased as a result of having a mental health problem.

Twenty-one percent of teachers surveyed (1 in 5) said they had “very frequently” or “frequently” seen a student being treated unfairly, bullied, or teased as a result of having a mental health problem, including 6% who indicated “very” frequently. Only 17% of teachers could say that they had “never” witnessed unfair treatment because of a mental health problem.

Chart 4: 1 in 5 teachers surveyed have often* seen students with a mental health problem being bullied

* Includes “frequently” and “very frequently” responses

In addition, when examining the share of teachers who reported that they often (“frequently” or “very frequently”) saw this type of behavior:

  • 24% of elementary school teachers reported that they often saw this type of behaviour compared to 17% of secondary school teachers.
  • 27% of teachers in a French as a first language school reported that they often saw this type of behaviour compared to 18% of teachers in an English school (including immersion).
  • 22% of teachers in small schools (less than 250 students) reported that they often saw this type of behaviour compared to 15% of teachers in larger schools (1,000 students or more).

Multi-agency teams in schools

Teachers were asked to assess their school’s capacity to address student mental health needs through multi-agency teams (consisting of health care, social services, justice, and education professionals).

On the question of whether schools have a multi-agency team in place,

  • About 4 in 10 teachers surveyed (39%) reported that their school has a multi-agency team, ranging from 44% of secondary teachers to 36% of elementary teachers.
  • A quarter of teachers reported that they did not know if their school had a multi-agency team.
  • Half of teachers in schools with 1,000 students or more (49%) report that their school has a multi-agency team compared to 35% of teachers in schools with less than 250 students.

Chart 5: 4 in 10 teachers surveyed indicated their school has a multi-agency team

In addition,
  • 6 in 10 teachers who reported having a multi-agency team in their school said it contained at least one community-based health care professional, ranging from 64% of secondary teachers to 56% of elementary teachers.
  • Almost a quarter of teachers who reported having a multi-agency team did not know if it contained at least one community-based health care professional.

Mental health-based teacher professional development

Teachers were also asked to assess their own preparedness to address student mental illness in terms of professional development (knowledge acquisition or skills training).

On the question of whether they had received any mental health-based professional development,

  • Most teachers (over two-thirds) reported that they had not received any professional development such as knowledge acquisition or skills training to address student mental illness.
  • Teachers with more experience were more likely to report having received some professional development related to student mental illness. Three-quarters of teachers with less than 5 years of teaching experience in the public education system indicated that they had not received this type of professional development compared to 63% of those with 25 years or more experience.
  • 72% of teachers in a French as a first language school reported not having received any professional development related to student mental illness in their school compared to 67% of teachers in English schools (including immersion).

Chart 6: Almost 7 in 10 teachers surveyed have not received professional development to address student mental illness in their school

Teachers who responded that they had received some professional development were asked to provide additional information. On the question of who provided their most recent mental health-based professional development, almost 6 in 10 teachers who reported having received professional development indicated that they received this training from a health care professional, including one-third from a community-based health care professional and 26% from a health care professional employed by the school board. In addition 10% of teachers reported that they received their training from their teacher organization, while 9% indicated a colleague and 5% reported a principal or vice-principal.

Chart 7: Majority of teachers surveyed who received mental health-related professional development were trained by health care professionals

In addition, most teachers (87%) who received mental health-based professional development reported that they were satisfied it met their needs – this included 23% who were “very satisfied” and 64% who were “somewhat satisfied”.

Teachers were asked to assess the importance of their need to receive additional knowledge or skills training in these specific areas:

  • Recognizing and understanding mental health issues in children
  • Training in classroom management
  • Training in engaging and working effectively with families
  • Strategies for working with children with externalizing behaviour problems

The vast majority of teachers indicated that it is important that they receive additional professional development in all of these areas. There was little difference between respondents who had received training and those who had not when it came to a desire for additional in-service. The percentage of teachers indicating each surveyed issue as important was higher among elementary teachers than secondary teachers, as well as among teachers in schools with a smaller student population.

These are among the specific findings on priority areas for teacher professional development related to student mental health:

  • Virtually all teachers surveyed (97%) reported an important need for additional knowledge and skills training in recognizing and understanding mental health issues in children, including 69% who consider it “very important” and 28% who feel it is “somewhat important”. Seventy-two percent of elementary teachers consider this need to be “very important” compared to 63% of secondary teachers.
  • Virtually all teachers (96%) reported an important need for additional knowledge and skills training in strategies for working with children with externalizing behaviour problems, including 71% who consider it “very important” and 26% who feel it is “somewhat important”. Seventy-six percent of elementary teachers consider this need to be “very important” compared to 63% of secondary teachers.
  • Almost 9 in 10 teachers (88%) reported an important need for additional knowledge and skills training to prepare them to engage and work effectively with families, including 48% who consider it “very important” and 40% who feel it is “somewhat important”. Fifty-three percent of elementary teachers consider this need to be “very important” compared to 40% of secondary teachers.
  • Eighty-four percent of teachers reported an important need for additional knowledge and skills training in classroom management, including 53% who consider it “very important” and 31% who feel it is “somewhat important”. Fifty-six percent of elementary teachers consider this need to be “very important” compared to 48% of secondary teachers.

Chart 8: Overwhelming majority of teachers surveyed report a need for additional professional development in each of the 4 areas examined

Key messages from the CTF survey – What teachers told us

Based on both the qualitative and the quantitative results of the CTF survey, these are some of the key messages that we heard from teacher respondents about student mental health in their schools:

  • Mental health problems among children and youth have become a major issue facing public schools – attention deficit disorders, learning disabilities, stress, anxiety disorders, and depression are the most pressing concerns identified by teachers.
  • Numerous barriers exist to mental health service provision for students including an insufficient number of school-based mental health professionals; lack of adequate staff training in dealing with children’s mental illness; lack of funding for school-based mental health services; an insufficient number of community-based mental health professionals; and a lack of coordinated services between the school and the community.
  • Most teachers also believe that stigma and discrimination pose a major barrier to the provision of mental health services for students. Only a minority of teachers could say that they had “never” witnessed unfair treatment of students (including bullying) because of a mental health problem.
  • While many schools have put in place a multi-agency team to address the needs of students with mental health concerns, many schools have yet to do so. Teachers noted that while such teams can be quite effective, they expressed concerns that many teams have too little time, too few resources, and too many demands (large caseloads).
  • Most teachers have not received any professional development in the area of student mental health. Among the priority areas for teacher professional development in terms of knowledge and skills training are recognizing and understanding mental health issues in children, and strategies for working with children with externalizing behaviour problems.
  • Schools are in serious need of more resources. The shortage of mental health resources, especially qualified human resources such as social workers, guidance counselors, nurses, educational assistants, psychologists and psychiatrists, was a recurring theme throughout the responses. Lack of access to resources and services in rural and Northern communities was a particular concern.
  • In general, teachers support the need to continue and broaden the important emerging conversation about child and youth mental illness and mental health in order to raise awareness, and reduce and ultimately eliminate harmful stigma. While teachers feel they are part of the solution, they expressed a need for more assistance in the schools by mental health professionals whose area of expertise would complement that of teachers.

Student mental health constitutes another aspect of the complex issue of class composition and student diversity in schools in terms of the challenges teachers face in working to meet a broad and growing range of student needs, including those related to mental health and well-being.

 

Bernie Froese-Germain and Richard Riel are researchers at the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF).

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Perspectives web magazine is published by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF), a national alliance of provincial and territorial teacher organizations that represent over 238,000 elementary and secondary school teachers across Canada.

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