Principal, C.W. Perry School – Why is mental health such a focus in our schools? I thought “the school” was just for academics and socialization? Yeah right!
You don’t need to look very far in the news, social media or merely talking to community families to know the need for mental health awareness and services is required for today’s learners.1 Over the last five years, I have read many articles, watched many documentaries and watched school communities wrestle with the role of mental health in our schools. If you are someone who feels mental illness is just “in your head”… you would be right. Take a look at the article from National Institute of Mental Health. Today, as educators we learn about neuroplasticity, brain basics, and training our brains to respond appropriately in situations. We do this because it allows students to understand how their mind works, how their brain learns, and how to conquer regular life issues. We also call this resiliency. This is not a new concept, resiliency. Since 2000, we have invested professional development and supports in classrooms to assist teachers and students. Today, we are seeing more and more students suffering from anxiety, panic attacks, social phobia, non-suicidal harm and more.2
Young Canadians are suffering from rising levels of anxiety, stress, depression and even suicide. Close to 20 percent – or one in five – have a mental health issue. “Many of us are worried that the number of young people today experiencing mental health problems is on the increase,” Dr. Jean Clinton, a child psychiatrist at McMaster University, told Global News. “As a society, we need to be saying this is a crisis,” she said. The Canadian Mental Health Association estimates that the total number of 12 to 19 year olds at risk of depression is a staggering 3.2 million.”3
So how can principals go about assisting their students in these issues? Let me throw out a couple of ideas (in no specific order), but realize the best thing for schools to do at any level (yes, even universities and colleges) is to connect with their students:
- Survey your community and find out how they are feeling about their day-to-day experience at school.
- Develop a team who is committed to continually staying in front of topics of discussions, to connect with services and find the needed resources.
- Start to connect with non-profit organizations and become partners with them.
- Meet with like-minded people and administrators who are committed to the same cause.
- Create awareness for your school population.
- Give training to staff on mental illness, awareness and wellness.
- Focus on positives (hope, recovery, tools, normalcy), “mental illness conference” versus “mental wellness conferences” (MindUp for example).
- Develop your school education plan to address the topic of mental wellness for students.
- Look at the professionals you already employ; you don’t necessarily need new people. You will need the people you have trained in current messaging and learnings from psychologists, etc.
- Develop a mental health statement your school can “bite into.” Such as, “Everyone matters, everyone needs to be heard; we are here to help – Mental Health at Example School.”
- Realize not all your community members will agree with you, that is ok. We are in educational health flux right now. Until the provincial or state governments choose to fund positions in educational institutions (as to lessen the burden on health institutions), we will feel overwhelmed by the need.
- Start with the “why”. Talk and write about what is really happening in schools and what the need is.
- Read books, articles and watch “Ted Talks”. Be informed, don’t make statements and judgments without knowing. Our school culture can change rapidly; however; your goal is to lead your school culture, not be lead by it.
Education has always been about preparing students for their future. Part of the preparation is the soft skills, building a resiliency in life, and maturing emotionally.
For all those administrators out there – don’t give up, keep forging forward and live what you believe.