Latimer: Mental health in schools

Capital News columnist Paul Latimer says statistics reveal that one in five students experience mental health concerns

Paul Latimer

We’re a few weeks into the school year and most students have finally settled back into the daily routines of class time, homework and activities.

Teachers have also had a chance to get to know their students and are undoubtedly getting a sense of the unique strengths and challenges facing them for this term.

For some students, the typical struggles to understand math concepts or work on reading comprehension are compounded by mental health issues as well.

Statistics tell us that about one in five students experiences some sort of mental health concern – which could be anything from ADHD to anxiety, depression, an eating disorder or others.

Quite often, these issues are first noticed in a school setting and the teachers and staff at the school become default front line professionals in what can be complicated and distressing circumstances.

Unfortunately, in spite of this, we often haven’t given our teachers the training or support they need to deal effectively with mental health concerns among students when they arise.

Some schools are working to alleviate this shortcoming by adopting what is known as a multi-tiered system of supports designed to connect with all students and get additional help for those who may need it.

Proponents of this system describe it as an upside down pyramid model. First, the school creates a positive, supportive environment for all students where mental health issues are not stigmatized.

This can start from the top of the school’s administration – principals who connect with students each day set the tone for everyone else. In this environment, it is easier to learn when individual students are having difficulty coping. And in a supportive setting, such a student may feel more comfortable coming forward if help is needed.

When school staff learn about a need early on, it can go a long way to preventing the situation from getting worse. This can save the student a lot of distress and also prevent negative social and educational outcomes for the individual that can result when an issue is not effectively handled in a timely manner.

Once a need has been identified, a classroom teacher can enlist help from other professionals as required. Some of the best examples of this school support model have social workers, counselors and even psychiatrists on location to provide clinical assistance to students when needed.

A child moves up the pyramid of care as needed, but always in a supportive community environment.

This school model is a microcosm of what is often described as an ideal system for the larger community. When mental health was initially deinstitutionalized, the thought was to have more supports and services available to deal with mental health needs in a supportive way within the community. Of course, this was never fully realized and we still have many issues with access and availability of resources for those with mental health concerns.

It is heartening to learn of educators working with health care providers to attempt to create learning environments that are safe and supportive for all students and can meet their needs. No doubt, funding and government direction will sometimes create barriers here – but it is an ideal we can all strive toward whether we currently have children in school or not.

Paul Latimer is a psychiatrist and president of Okanagan Clinical Trials.


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