Continuing the Mental Health Conversation

TES, an international resource organization for educators, published an article last Wednesday discussing the importance of mental health curriculum in schools. Metro news picked up the story, and since my car radio is glued to Newstalk 1010, I overheard host Jerry Agar sharing his feelings on the topic while driving to work. Jerry questioned the need for mental health discussion in Kindergarten, and one of his panellists - Liberal MP Arthur Potts, responded with one of the simplest, most intelligent comments I have heard on the subject.

To paraphrase what he said:

“If we are checking in on kids’ teeth when they are in kindergarten, then why wouldn’t we be checking on their mental well being as well?”

The Metro news article states that issues of mental health tend to pop up “early” and that when teenagers find things difficult, they sometimes feel as if they are weird, or alone. Having lived experience as both a teenager, and as someone with mental illness, I would have to agree with this statement.  On the outside, it appeared that I had a high self esteem (a topic that was discussed more in those days), but on the inside, I felt that I was different. I knew that there was something going on with me, but I just didn’t know what it was.

It took me another 18 years to figure it out, and those years were not easy.

We have an opportunity right now to directly impact young people, and their ability to cope in a challenging and ever-changing world. The news of the UK shifting towards including mental health in their overall education curriculum is a big step.

Here is a short snippet of their plan, as outlined on the TES website:

·       In primary school, students will be discussing emotions and their impact on well-being.

·       In secondary school students will discuss anxiety, depression, psychosis, eating disorders and self-harm.

What I liked the most about their plan however, is that they are working to normalize the conversation around mental health by making it a part of daily discussions in all classrooms.  With a goal of training all teachers in Mental Health First Aid, the concept breaks the traditional mould of students having to ask for help, and encourages the discussion with all teachers, on a regular basis. This is extremely important given the fact that many young people just don’t know what’s going on with their emotions.

“If you only have one person in a school, it becomes a big deal if you have to seek them out,” said Jane Millward, E-Act deputy chief executive, who is overseeing the plan. “If you have to make an appointment with a special someone in a special room, that almost accentuates the stigma.”[1]

In Ontario, the Health and Physical Education Curriculum in Grades 7-11 includes discussion on Mental Health once per year, as part of a “Healthy Living” unit, and there are no expectations that mental health is discussed in Grade 12.  Teachers who deliver these lessons are provided with a variety of sample curriculums and online resources to use, however it is ultimately up to the individual teacher to decide how the information is relayed. Additionally, there is no standardized testing, or follow-up to ensure that students understand.

So, while we are a little behind the UK and their recent initiatives, we are getting closer every day, and there are things that we can do at home to encourage discussion.

I believe that it is extremely important for young people to understand that having a mental illness doesn’t mean having a stamp on your forehead that says “DAMAGED.” If adolescents are aware of the many things one can do to reduce symptoms, cope, and feel well, then perhaps they would be more open to asking for help.

The more we normalize the conversation around mental health, the brighter the future for the next generation. The sooner they learn how to talk about what’s going on with them, the sooner they can develop strategies to manage their lives, and the more successful they will be.

So, I encourage parents, family members and loved ones to have these discussions with their kids. It’s up to us to bring these conversations to the dinner table and help everyone feel comfortable saying “I’m not feeling well today” when it’s not about a tummy ache, or a runny nose.

As a society we need to shift more towards treating mental health as we do our physical health, and that starts with all of us - in the words we use, and the support we give one another every day.

 

If you or a loved one are in crisis, please contact the distress centre nearest you. The Access Point website has an extensive list of resources for those living in the Greater Toronto Area.

[1] Online Source: Adi Bloom; Every teacher must be trained in mental health first aid… November 1st, 2017