Healthy Minds, Bright Futures program aims to address students’ needs
In 2009, the Alberta Teachers’ Association’s entered into a partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association as a commitment to the mental health of Alberta students. This partnership now bears the name Healthy Minds, Bright Futures. Its aim is to promote children’s mental health, increase awareness of children’s mental health needs and decrease the stigmatization that is often associated with mental illness.
In 2010, Global Alberta joined as a full partner to provide a television campaign designed to build awareness for the Healthy Minds, Bright Futures initiative with the long-term goal of helping parents, children and the community understand and recognize the importance of student mental health and the role of teachers.
Working closely with CMHA, the ATA developed a new reference booklet, Creating a Compassionate Classroom (available in French and English) that has proven to be a valuable resource for teachers in the classroom. Teachers understand that children and youth bring with them to school many serious mental health disorders that must not be ignored. Teachers also understand that they are not mental health experts; they are experts on kids. For children to be properly educated, teachers require appropriate supports and students need teachers who are equipped to meet their mental health conditions.
Of deep concern, teachers are reporting that not only are the number of students experiencing mental health issues increasing, so too are the incidences of young children who are suffering. According to statistics available from both Alberta Health and Statistics Canada, only one in five students who require mental health support is receiving the help they need. Coupled with the fact that mental disorders in youth are ranked as the second highest hospital care expenditure in Canada, the gravity of the issue becomes apparent.
Estimates portray a picture that indicates that 15 to 20 per cent of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder—the single most disabling group of disorders worldwide. Approximately five per cent of male youth and 12 per cent of female youth aged 12 to 19 have experienced a major depressive episode and the total number of 12- to 19-year-olds in Canada who are at risk for developing depression is a staggering 3.2 million.
Mental illness is increasingly threatening the lives of our children, with Canada’s youth suicide rate the third highest in the industrialized world. In fact, suicide is among the leading causes of death in 15- to 24-year-old Canadians, second only to accidents. Teenagers and young adults have the highest rates of hospital admissions due to attempted suicide, and Alberta’s suicide rate is two to three per cent higher than the national average.
Schizophrenia is youth’s greatest disabler as it strikes most often in the 16- to 30-year-old age group, affecting an estimated one person in 100. In recent years, mental health practitioners have noticed that schizophrenia is presenting at much younger ages, including some children as young as six or seven years of age. As well, students with anxiety disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias, post-traumatic stress or eating disorders, students who are identified with neurodevelopmental disorders, and students who are self-harming are all part of the landscape of the “average” Alberta classroom.
Schools are uniquely placed to address students’ mental health problems. Schools are where students’ mental health can be addressed as part of a wider spectrum of health curricula, much as is currently undertaken with physical health and nutrition. The stigma surrounding mental illness is one of the biggest barriers to students asking for help. By normalizing discussions about mental health, teachers can help to lessen the social stigma attached to mental illness.
As part of its efforts to eliminate the stigma associated with mental health, the Alberta Teachers’ Association encourages all schools to participate in the Hats On! for Mental Health day. Held each year on the first Wednesday of May (this year on May 2, 2018), the day is a great way to introduce the subject of mental health to students, reduce the stigma associated with it and encourage students to ask questions about mental health. Early identification of mental health problems, followed by effective intervention, is critically important.
Since teachers are not mental health professionals and many have not received any professional development focussed on student mental health, it is important to recognize they cannot tackle student mental health alone—they need resources and support. At the same time, there is an extreme shortage of qualified human resource personnel, such as social workers, guidance counsellors, nurses, educational assistants, psychologists and psychiatrists to work directly with students in schools. The gap in services is even more severe in rural and northern communities.
These challenges can be met only by a strong commitment from all members of the educational community to work together to fully realize the partnership’s aim—to meaningfully address the needs of students living with mental health illness—and to put in place pathways for the Healthy Minds, Bright Futures initiative to succeed.
More information on resources and lesson plans for teachers is available at www.canwetalk.ca.
An executive staff officer with the Alberta Teachers’ Association, Shelley Magnusson oversees the Association’s partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association and Global Alberta.