As a subject that has long been considered taboo, many Canadian educators lack an understanding of—and language to discuss—mental health.
“We still have outdated views that this is somehow a moral weakness or a character flaw in an individual,” explains Andrew Baxter, who leads MentalHealthLiteracy.org.
The free online service provides mental health literacy resources for schools, and has been utilized by an estimated 15,000 educators since it was created in 2013. “Mental health literacy tends to be fairly low amongst teachers—we’ve done research to show that—but it can be very easily improved by exposure to good mental health literacy content.”
Baxter explains that mental health literacy typically requires an understanding of some basic concepts. Chief among them is the understanding that mental health is different from a mental disorder, or a negative mood.
“Having a bad mood or a bad day does not mean your mental health is poor—actually, it’s a good sign. Positive mental health should have a fluctuation in mood and a range of feelings,” he says.
Instead, the organization seeks to offer students and educators a basic understanding of the signs and symptoms of a range of common mental disorders.
“We explicitly teach youth about disorders, like depression, clinical anxiety and ADHD [attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder], so they know when something has changed from a normal mood state to a problem or concern,” he says. Baxter says with that knowledge, sufferers are better prepared “to have an informed conversation with their health care provider once they get services.”
The increase in demand for child and youth mental health services in Canada in recent years might suggest that today’s students are struggling more than previous generations, but it could also suggest they feel more empowered to address mental health needs.
While the pandemic has created additional challenges for Canada’s students, Baxter is optimistic that the experience will ultimately serve to make them more resilient.
“Those challenges are accumulating to stressors, and that’s normal, because it’s a pandemic, we should feel a stress response right now; it’s what we do with that stress that’s critical,” he says.
“One of the mental health literacy components is teaching them how to embrace stress, how to make stress your friend, because it’s out there, and you’re not going to get through life without encountering it.”
Whether or not educators actively pursue mental health literacy training, Mr. Baxter says schools are naturally effective in supporting the mental health of their students. Improving mental health literacy, however, can help them better manage specific situations and challenges that often arise in a school setting.
“I think the best thing they can do is do what they do well,” he says. “Focus on the structure and routine, link them to services when they need it, be those trusted adults that youth feel comfortable coming to with problems, and keep the process of teaching [mental health literacy] going.”
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