As I stood at the podium to open the July 2016 Canadian Forum on Public Education, I was struck by the timeliness of the forum topic: Wellness in our Schools. When I started teaching in the early 1980s, the mental health and wellness of neither students nor teachers were regular topics of conversation around the staff room table, or anywhere else for that matter. Students and teachers were not well served by this silence and lack of support for diagnosis or real needs.
I hope change has begun and that these discussions are occurring in schools. Across Canada, educators have told us that student mental health is the number one issue that impacts teaching and learning, saying schools need more community support, professional services and resources to help students facing challenges.
According to a 2012 teacher survey conducted by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, in collaboration with our member organizations and the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the majority of teachers say stress, anxiety disorders, attention deficit disorders, attention hyperactivity disorders and autism spectrum disorders as well as learning disabilities such as dyslexia are pressing concerns in their schools.
And yet, in the same survey, almost seven in 10 teachers said they had not received professional training to address student mental illness in their schools. Clearly, there is a major gap between identified needs and the reality. According to teachers, stigma and discrimination are by far the biggest barriers hindering dialogue and support for everyone’s mental health and wellness.
In response to this need, on Oct. 10—World Mental Health Day—CTF officially released a new classroom resource for teachers aimed at opening up classroom discussions on stigma. The booklet titled Mental Health Stigma: Challenging it together! aims to increase teachers’ and students’ comfort levels when talking about mental health.
Over my 33-year career teaching and providing resource support in New Brunswick classrooms, there have been many children over whom I have lost sleep. While I taught all levels from kindergarten to Grade 5, I spent more than 13 years teaching at the kindergarten level with four and five-year-olds. I felt frustration, concern and even anger at times when the school team had to fight for appropriate services for individual students only to be blocked at every effort. It was no surprise to me that I could easily name the students the high school vice-principal saw on a regular basis for disciplinary issues, nine years after I had taught them in kindergarten.
While teachers feel they’re part of the solution in supporting student wellness in the school, they clearly cannot do it alone without experts, professional learning and funding.
And let’s be frank—mental health challenges can also affect teachers. The results of CTF’s 2014 national survey on work/life balance, which garnered more than 8,000 responses, revealed that teachers’ stress related to work-life imbalance had jumped over the previous five years for 80 per cent of teachers. When asked why, 95 per cent said it was the inability to devote as much time as they’d like to each of their students.
As for life outside of the school, once again most said they didn’t have enough time to spend with their own children, spouse or partner, for recreational pursuits and/or for caring for family and friends in need. Plus, teachers and other education personnel have taken on the duties of front line triage with students suffering the effects of poverty, food insecurity, family stress and addictions, and mental health concerns. All of these factors can lead to teacher burnout and mental distress. And that certainly has an impact in the classroom.
The CTF Canadian Forum on Public Education just began to scratch at the surface of the issue of wellness in our schools. It is time to act, and those of us in schools must lobby and advocate for sufficient and appropriate supports for students and colleagues. We need to find those allies in the wider community in order to work together. Those of us here at CTF will most certainly do our part at the federal level! ❚
Heather Smith is the president of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.