Perspectives

Schools keep health in mind

By Claire Tremblay
April 13, 2012

Once considered an affliction mainly suffered by adults, mental illness now increasingly affects children. Studies show up to one in five Canadian youth experience mental illness – and for some of them, the pain becomes too much. In 2011, 4,000 lives were lost prematurely due to suicide. Many of these individuals were under the age of 30.

In 2011, one of those youth was 15 year old Jamie Hubley of Ottawa. The openly gay student committed suicide after years of taunts based on his sexual orientation. Jamie’s death shocked the Ottawa community. But sadly, tragedies like Jamie’s are only too common. Emotional wounding caused by bullying, is a daily reality for many children.

According to Paul Taillefer, President of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, the umbrella organization of Canada’s teacher unions and organizations, although professionals do not know the exact cause of mental illness, bullying such as that experienced by Hubley and other teens makes matters worse.

“Mental illness is a combination of many factors…heredity, bio-chemical and environmental factors,” Taillefer says. “It’s also the reality of the school community that students who suffer the stigma of mental illness are often bullied and isolated, perpetuating ongoing symptomatic behavior.”

No child should be in so much emotional pain that suicide feels like the only option. That’s why the Canadian Teachers’ Federation takes mental wellness seriously. Ensuring students receive their education in a safe and caring environment that fosters personal growth is a top priority for the Federation. To this end, the CTF has spoken out on issues that may trigger mental illness including bullying, poverty and the lack of inclusion.

Taillefer says every school needs to deal with mental health challenges by having clear policy directions from its board, protocols that promote mental health activities and ongoing professional development for teachers on how to assist students who have to deal with this issue. Also important is the provision of professional support for teachers and students and strong communication between parents, teachers and the school principal.

 “Where there are no appropriate policies or protocol in place in support of effectively dealing with student mental health issues, teachers feel powerless to help the student in question,” says Mr. Taillefer. “Teachers must also face the fear of making matters worse for the child should they intervene without proper supports in place.” Open and clear communication between parents and schools is also critical. “Ongoing communication between the parent and the school is critical so that together, they can assess situations, share information and build a blanket of support to wrap around a child.”

Such communication and administrative supports are necessary to deal with the myriad of mental health challenges experienced by youth including depression, autism, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety and panic disorder. Other associated conditions include addictions and anorexia and bulimia. Of particular concern, is schizophrenia which disproportionately affects the 16 to 30 year old age group – an estimated one in a hundred Canadians are affected by the disorder.

Early intervention is critical. Research shows that symptoms of mental illness can manifest in childhood. More often however, the onset of mental illness occurs in pre or early adolescence – in other words, in school aged children. And while the symptoms of mental illness such as behavioral challenges may have been dismissed in the past, schools are now taking truancy and other behaviors more seriously. “Truancy in the school system was disruptive but not perceived as potentially arising from a mental disorder,” says Taillefer.

Apart from initiatives within the schools themselves, Taillefer says the CTF is working on a pan-Canadian level “to lay the groundwork for systemic change within our own education system.” 

In the spring of 2012, the CTF will have results of a national survey of teachers around the issue of student mental health. Believed to be the first of its kind, the survey conducted in partnership with the Mental Health Commission of Canada will provide a voice for classroom teachers on this very important issue.

The Federation also partners with the School-based Mental Health and Substance Abuse Consortium that promotes youth mental health initiatives in schools. The Consortium looks at school-based and school-linked practices that promote mental health and provide early intervention for students with mental health and addiction issues. CTF also works with Partners for Mental Health, a not-for-profit charity which hopes to transform the way people think about and act towards people living with a mental illness. “They aim to empower individuals and organizations to take action leading to unprecedented improvements in mental health services, mental health research funding and the mental well-being of all Canadians,” says Taillefer. In April 2012, Partners for Mental Health will launch a grassroots-based social media site to facilitate information sharing, dialogue and increased access to resources to help de-stigmatize mental illness.

“As an organization representing teachers who work and build relationships with youth on a daily basis, the Canadian Teachers’ Federation believes this social media platform focused on mental health can be a hub where teachers go to access the tools and supports they require,” says Taillefer.

“Together as a profession, we can empower ourselves, help de-stigmatize mental illness and work towards systemic change that will confirm that mental health is indeed a basic human right of children and youth.”

Claire Tremblay is a lawyer and feature writer for Ottawa Life Magazine.

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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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