Feature – Wellness in our schools: Time to act! Reflections from the 2016 Canadian Forum on Public Education

By Bernie Froese-Germain
October 7, 2016

The relationship between education and health is undeniably important. The Pan-Canadian Joint Consortium for School Health tells us that “health and education are interdependent: healthy students are better learners, and better-educated individuals are healthier.”

More broadly, healthy vibrant communities are essential to high quality inclusive public education systems, and vice versa. It is a mutually dependent, mutually beneficial relationship.

When it comes to “Wellness in Our Schools”, the theme of CTF’s Canadian Forum on Public Education held in Montréal, July 11-12, educators understand the importance of the fundamental relationship that exists between health and education. CTF organized the Forum because it believes that safe and caring schools promote healthy learning environments for children and youth, and healthy workplaces for teachers, and should be a national priority.

The specific focus of the Forum was mental health — of students and teachers. The World Health Organization describes mental health as being “more than just the absence of mental disorders or disabilities. Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

During a “Gallery Walk” on the final day of the Forum, participants were asked to provide their thoughts and ideas on potential actions that teachers, teacher organizations and others working in public education, and governments could take to improve student and teacher mental health and well-being in our schools. This is just some of what we heard:

  • Provide mental health screening for students at certain ages or grades similar to screening for hearing or vision problems;

  • Look for opportunities to engage with students (student voice) on ways to address the challenges related to the stigma associated with mental illness;

  • Raise awareness of the specific mental health challenges facing LGBTQ youth; find opportunities to listen to and incorporate their voices on these issues;

  • Examine teacher workload and work-life issues and the implications this has for mental health;

  • Look for ways to enhance teacher training opportunities on mental health issues in faculties of education;

  • Encourage school boards to provide professional learning for teachers and educational assistants in Mental Health First Aid (a course developed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada);

  • Foster teacher-led research on ways to address the challenges related to mental illness and stigma.

  • Find ways to integrate mental health issues into the curriculum;

  • Continue to support research initiatives such as the Growing Up Digital project on the impacts of digital technology on youth mental health;

  • Raise parental awareness of the negative impacts of mental illness-related stigma;

  • Look for ways to approach mental health issues and challenges from an Indigenous perspective;

  • Look for ways to foster ‘proactive’ as opposed to ‘reactive’ approaches to school wellness;

  • Learn about and share the plethora of positive initiatives/programs being implemented across the country; and,

  • Find ways to capture the attention of policymakers/funders to better resource the system.

In his closing reflections on the Forum, Globe and Mail health columnist André Picard observed that in a knowledge society, the most important investment we can make is in the brains of our children. As mental illness tends to strike at a young age, early intervention is crucial — the longer the problem persists, the more difficult and expensive it is to treat.

Teachers and schools have an important role to play however they cannot do it alone. Increased collaboration and coordination among our education partners including the health sector is a key ingredient in working towards greater wellness in our schools.

Bernie Froese-Germain is a Researcher with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.

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