Monday, 17 August 2009

Mental health in schools: How teachers have the power to make a difference

We've had a lot of great feedback from our post on schools as the next frontier for mental health education.

We all know the problem. Mental disorders represent the most common and disabling condition affecting young people and therefore have major implications for students and for schools. In short, mental health problems affect a student’s emotional well-being, their ability to learn, are a factor in why some students drop out of school.

But too often we focus on the problems instead of the solutions. In a recent article entitled "Mental health in schools: how teachers have the power to make a difference" for Health and Learning Magazine, Dr. Kutcher, Leigh Meldrum and I outlined a three-pronged approach to address mental health problems in schools. 

Schools can be an important location for mental health promotion, early identification and intervention, combating stigma associated with mental illness and possibly providing interventions and ongoing care. But as a teacher, what can you do to make a difference in the mental well being of your students? The answer is not always easy, and requires cooperation at all levels of the education system and a positive collaboration with health care providers.

Using the classroom for stigma reduction
One of the largest obstacles facing youth with mental illness is the associated social stigma against people living with a mental disorder. While the scientific understanding and treatment of mental disorders, as well as the awareness of the importance of mental health in all aspects of life, has advanced considerably in the past decade, the public’s perception about people with mental illness has been much slower to change.

In the classroom, stigma associated with mental illness can affect how teachers, classmates, and peers treat the student living with a mental disorder. School-based anti-stigma activities present an opportunity to enhance understanding of mental illness and improve attitudes towards people living with mental illness. Furthermore, school-based anti-stigma activities reach people on all social levels, from teachers, principals and administrators to parents and community members to most importantly, the students themselves.

Identify and intervene!
Early identification and effective intervention for youth with mental disorders is critical. If left untreated, the symptoms of a mental illness may increase in severity, and its effects may become more serious and potentially life threatening. Educators and school personnel are in an ideal position to recognize behavioural or emotional changes, which may be symptomatic of the onset of mental illness.
By providing training related to youth mental health and mental disorders in young people that is specific to educators we will be better equipped to protect and promote the mental health of our youth. Educator-specific programs, such as Understanding Adolescent Depression and Suicide Education Training Program, addresses the signs and symptoms of depression, as well as risk factors for suicide, methods of identification and appropriate referral of high-risk youth. The basis of this innovative Canadian program is supported by documented evidence of effectiveness and has been demonstrated to improve mental health literacy in educators and health professionals.

School curriculum meets mental health promotion
A potential starting point for the integration of mental health care into existing school health systems is through the implementation of a gatekeeper model. A gatekeeper model provides training to teachers and student services personnel (such as social workers, guidance counseling, school psychologists) in the identification and support of young people at risk for or living with a mental disorder. It also links education professionals with health providers to allow for more detailed assessment and intervention when needed.

Schools can also address students’ mental health through the implementation of mental health promotion strategies through innovative curriculum initiatives. Improving mental health literacy through curriculum development and application could enhance knowledge and change attitudes in students and teachers alike, and embedding mental health as a component of health promoting activities could enhance mental health while decreasing stigma associated with mental disorders. Two examples of recently developed Canadian mental health curriculum for schools are: Healthy Minds, Healthy Body (Province of Nova Scotia) and the Secondary School Mental Health Curriculum (Canadian Mental Health Association).



~ David Venn

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