The Ontario government announced that they will introduce a new mandatory education curriculum for elementary and high school students that aims to increase mental health literacy, in the wake of continued challenges that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. It will help students to recognise signs of being overwhelmed or struggling, as well as where to find help. Ontario’s current health and physical education curriculum, updated in 2019, already includes learning on mental-health literacy in every grade.
The program was ushered in due to the advocacy of Progressive Conservative MPP Natalie Pierre, who put forward a motion in December around mental health literacy. She took up the case for mental health education after her 17-year-old son took his life by suicide six years ago. After her son died, Pierre made it her personal mission to advocate for mental health education in classrooms.
She said that her son was like any other student. The day before he died, he took a university campus tour. The night before, he went to a school dance. He worked a few hours at his part time job, and he got together with friends. Everyone observed him to be a normal, healthy teenager, but that wasn’t the truth. In the months and years that followed; others contacted her to share their experiences with mental illness.
This propelled her to advocate for mental health education in schools the same way math and science are taught.
The proposed curriculum aims to create a personal toolbox of skills that a student could utilise in their life and their jobs and in the classroom. It will include learning materials for Grades 7 and 8 in the form of activities, videos, and information to help students learn how to manage stress, determine the relationship between mental health and mental illness, recognise signs, symptoms and how to find support.
A survey released in February 2023 found about 91% of school principals reported needing some or a lot of support for students’ mental health and well-being. The report also suggested that there is a lack of resources to respond to the mental health crisis in the classroom.
The curriculum is proactive, practical, and evidence based. It reaches students where they are at and at a time in their lives when mental health issues often emerge. It is aimed to prevent tragedies like the one experienced by Pierre.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the government will also spend $26 million over the next two years to provide mental-health resources to students over the summer, so their support isn’t interrupted by the school break.
Mental health disorders among teenagers are highly prevalent yet undertreated. Reasons for not seeking help is due to limited awareness about mental health issues, social stigma and embarrassment, teenagers’ perceptions about confidentiality and the ability to trust an unknown person. Lack of professional help, inability of parents to identify mental health issues of their children and accept the same further adds to the problem.
The need for mental health education at high school must be about being honest regarding our mental health, pain, anger. By pretending that such issues do not exist in the teens and do not have to be taught about it at school is a disservice to the students. Introduction of mandatory mental health education in grade 10 will go a long way addressing the issues faced by the students.
“Mental health…is not a destination, but a process. It’s about how you drive, not where you’re going.” — Noam Shpancer, PhD, Professor of Psychology at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio.