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This is a still image from a video from the Peel District School Board about students’ mental health. (Peel District School Board)
This is a still image from a video from the Peel District School Board about students’ mental health. (Peel District School Board)

EDUCATION

Teen suicides bring mental-health into the open Add to ...

A young man sits in a dimly lit room, staring at the screen of the smartphone in front of him. “It’s 2 a.m.,” he writes, thumbs moving rapidly across the keyboard. “Not sure if I can do this any more.”

“There’s nothing left for me here,” he adds in another tweet, then buries his face in one hand.

The poignant scene is part of a short music video that will be shown in some Ontario schools this academic year.

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Deeply shaken by a series of teen suicides, the Peel District School Board hopes the four-minute dramatization will help address the still-taboo topic of mental health in a more open manner. It’s part of a small, but growing movement across Canadian schools to build education about mental health and suicide into the curriculum.

As the video continues, the young man’s missives are spotted by another teen, who replies with a message of her own. She sends the number for Kids Help Phone, then adds “#ChangeisComing #iPromise.”

The suburban board’s pro-active approach to mental health comes after a difficult academic year: Two of its high-school students died in what police called a murder-suicide, and three more teens at another school committed suicide.

One of the those teens, a 17-year-old Brampton student, mentioned suicide twice on a social-networking account just days before he died.

“We’re trying to take mental health out of the closet,” said Peel’s director of education Tony Pontes, “and see it as very real, see it as something that is affecting both our children’s well-being and their achievement, and also see it as something we can have an impact on.”

One in 10 young people say they have attempted suicide, and it is estimated that as many as 20 per cent of Canadian youth are affected by mental illness or disorders. Experts say that 70 per cent of these mental disorders can be diagnosed before the age of 25. Schools, they say, provide an ideal setting to identify and start treating children.

Nova Scotia will integrate a new mental-health program in its Grade 9 curriculum this year. Alberta will expand its mental-health strategy in Grades 4, 5 and 6 to junior-high students. The Ontario government has provided some funding for mental-health initiatives in schools. And the British Columbia Medical Association is linking with schools around mental-health projects.

Stanley Kutcher, an expert in adolescent mental health based in Halifax, said Canadian schools are starting to understand that good psychological health helps students learn. School health programs, he said, have always focused on physical education, sexuality and nutrition but mental health is starting to be included more.

“People are finally realizing that the brain is not disassociated from the body and that we have to look at the whole child together,” Dr. Kutcher said.

Peel’s focus on the issue is so strong that Mr. Pontes on Tuesday instructed a room full of school principals and administrators to lead talks on mental health in their classrooms. The video is just one part of the board’s strategy; it has also launched a new online resource for students, parents and staff that lists places they can turn to for help.

Mr. Pontes said the hope is that principals, teachers and school staff will develop relationships so that honest conversations can take place between students and trusted adults.

“We want every staff member to be aware and to be looking for children who are having difficulties,” he said. “We don’t expect our teachers and staff to be clinicians. What we want is for them to provide a caring, safe person that children can feel comfortable speaking to, and in that way, as we discover their story, then to make referrals to the appropriate people for support.”

Jim Van Buskirk, chief social worker for the board, said in the past, staff did the best they could do with the resources on hand. The new approach is much more coherent across the system, he said, and it forces schools to make mental health part of their mandate.

“There was a time many years ago when school boards wouldn’t have seen this to be their purview. Our job is to educate kids and that’s what we do,” Mr. Van Buskirk said. “There is a greater awareness now that life is much more complex and students spend five days a week with us.”

He added: “We’re in a terrific position to be aware of concerns and, when necessary, direct folks to the kind of services that might help them.”

Follow on Twitter: @calphonso

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