Attending the funerals of his students who died by suicide was always the toughest part of the job for David Thomas.
In the span of just three months, there was the teen girl who was a promising athlete and was teased for coming to terms with her own sexuality; a Grade 12 boy who was an assistant night manager at a fast-food restaurant; and a Grade 11 girl who struggled to fit in.
The director of education for a small school board in Eastern Ontario understands the grief of parents. Mr. Thomas lost his own daughter to cancer when she was just 6. But as the shock of each death wore off and his schools returned to their usual bustle, Mr. Thomas grew disillusioned and demanded change. "Can we raise the bar on empathy, kindness, warmth, generosity and to really put the kids first?" he asked his staff.
He found the answer by turning to the same social networks that can sometimes cause kids so much harm, and mandated that a peer-mentoring program be rolled out across all of his board's 22 high schools.
For the first time this month, a cohort of seniors at the Upper Canada District School Board will cross the graduation stage with course credit for a program that friended every incoming student, protected them from bullies, supported them through family issues and allowed problems that would otherwise go unnoticed to be aired.
"I'd like to think that we've taken responsibility for the whole child," Mr. Thomas said. "They're not going to learn unless they feel safe emotionally, intellectually, physically and spiritually."
Putting teens at the forefront of anti-bullying efforts is an approach that is being increasingly embraced. Experts say it is no longer acceptable to do nothing. Amanda Todd of Port Coquitlam, B.C., was 15 when she died by suicide after being tormented by cyberbullies. Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17-year-old from Cole Harbour, N.S., who killed herself in April, was also bullied. Two respected educators will submit a report to the Nova Scotia government on Friday reviewing how the Halifax Regional School Board handled the case of Ms. Parsons. Her mother told The Globe and Mail that Rehtaeh felt alone and adrift, and received no support from school officials.
Experts say that getting teens to work with each other – as in peer-mentoring programs – is one of the strongest planks of any successful anti-bullying, mental health strategy in schools. Many provinces have added mental health and emotional well-being as a curriculum and a program expectation, but largely leave it to schools to implement. Experts say government rhetoric needs to be backed up by supports. Last week, the federal government pledged to fund, through the Canadian Red Cross, the training of 2,400 teens to deliver anti-bullying workshops in their communities and reach out to others. The announcement was made at the former school of Jamie Hubley, son of an Ottawa city councillor and an openly gay teen tormented by bullies, who pushed the depressed tenth grader to die by suicide in October, 2011.
"Most of the provinces have some type of commentary or expectation that mental health is important or the social, emotional learning skills are important things to do. Where it breaks down is what actually happens in the classroom," said Ray Hughes, national education co-ordinator at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. "The need is really out there, but it's just kind of spinning in the air."
A recent Toronto District School Board survey of more than 100,000 students in Grades 7 to 12 found the vast majority of teenagers are so worried about the future, they're either losing sleep, feel like crying or experiencing more emotional distress than their parents or teachers expected.
"The front-line teachers and guidance counsellors are seeing on a daily basis more and more students that are coming to them to talk about anxiety, depression and not being connected to their school. They're searching for any way possible on how they can address that," Mr. Hughes said.
Nova Scotia has mandated a mental health curriculum for every Grade 9 student, and Newfoundland and Labrador initiated mental health literacy throughout its curriculum. But in many parts of the country, mental health education is fragmented and scattered throughout schooling. British Columbia has suggested curriculum examples that indirectly deal with mental health, but they are not required learning outcomes. The Ontario government has expectations in its curriculum – by the end of Grade 8, for example, students should be able to explain how stress affects mental health and emotional well-being – but has yet to offer guidance. The government has pledged to roll out resources to support teachers in delivering mental health literacy for the fall.
Stanley Kutcher, a psychiatrist at Dalhousie University who specializes in anxiety among adolescents, said governments are failing children when they don't provide a comprehensive curriculum on mental health disorders. The early teenage years are when mental disorders generally strike. "There's a huge need. Without mental health literacy you can't have prevention, you can't have promotion, you can't have interventions," Dr. Kutcher said. "It's the foundation for everything else."
Experts say Mr. Thomas at the Upper Canada school district has it right. The anti-bullying initiative, called Link Crew, was founded by the U.S.-based Boomerang Project and, over the past two decades, has been adopted by more than 2,500 high schools across Canada and the United States (350 in Canada alone). Link Crew is the first step, experts say, to helping teens who feel isolated and hopeless.
Mr. Thomas's school board is the first in Canada to simultaneously bring the program across the system and set it up in as a leadership course. A selected group of Grade 12s bonded with every incoming student. The older students have to apply to be part of the program. They receive training by teachers, who are Link Crew co-ordinators for their schools, in late August, just before school begins.
Mr. Thomas believes the benefits of Link Crew extend to measurable metrics, to success in the classroom: At one high school, where it was launched as a pilot program the previous year, 99 per cent of Grade 9 students received all their course credits, a sure sign, Mr. Thomas says, that they will complete high school.
Educators say that in an era of standardized testing and intense focus on student achievement, something has been lost in the shuffle: Students are first and foremost social beings, and without feeling connected and valued, not only will their learning suffer, it will handicap their engagement in school life and in social circles.
"That dialogue [around mental health and emotional well-being] should occur the same way that we teach kids about government," said Suzette Clark, department head of educational services for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation and a former social worker.
David Goldbloom, chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, said that in a rush to professionalize all forms of support, it's easy to overlook those "natural affinities" that come from peers. The program at Upper Canada does not obviate the need for other mental health initiatives and curriculum.
But, Dr. Goldbloom said, "it has the potential to provide something helpful, accessible, palatable and on-site. And it reflects common knowledge garnered across time and cultures – that community and support trump isolation in difficult times."