The Mental Health Connection

One of the things that I really appreciate about being a teacher at Elmwood is the school’s support of professional development opportunities for their staff. At the beginning of November, as part of my professional development, I had the opportunity to attend the Healthy School Communities National Forum organized by PHE Canada. One of my highlights of the conference was a presentation by Dr. Tracy Vallancourt, Professor and Tier 1 Canada Research Chair for School-Based Mental Health and Violence Prevention, about School-Based Mental Health. 

In Canada, 18-22% of 13-18 year-olds have serious mental health problems, up to 70% of mental health challenges begin during childhood and teenage years and only 20% of Canadian youth receive the services they need. These statistics can seem overwhelming however when preparing for my Grade 11 mental health unit I came across the following continuum that I found helpful:

                     “Continuum model of mental health.” Youth and Mental Health 101.
If we look at mental illness and mental health on separate but related continuums than students with mental illness can still have good mental health and conversely, students with no diagnosed mental illness can still have poor mental health (and everything in between). I feel empowered when I look at this continuum because I believe as a teacher that I can positively impact a student’s mental health regardless of where they are on the mental illness continuum. This is why I found the presentation by Dr. Vallencourt so valuable; she gave scientifically-backed suggestions about ways that a school can positively impact students’ mental health.

I believe that the real value of attending professional development is measured by what you do with what you have learned when you return to school. I was thrilled when our administration gave me the opportunity to share what I had learned with all of our staff during our own Professional Development day in late November. My presentation shared four simple areas from Dr. Vallencourt’s talk that I encouraged all staff to focus on to ensure that they are having a positive impact on our students’ mental health. As a staff, we then completed an activity, that I also learned about at the conference, about teacher-student connection. The most consistent asset of resilient children is a strong bond with a competent adult. To ensure that ALL of our students have the opportunity for this bond within our school, we first defined what true connection between staff and student looks like. The walls of the Multipurpose room were lined with pictures of all of our students and we then had staff acknowledged which students they felt they had a connection with by placing a checkmark beside the student’s picture. This gave an excellent visual representation of which students have a lot of connections and who does not. The great news is that all of our students had at least a few connections and based on the activity staff are more aware of who we need to reach out to. Based on the feedback from our staff, I believe that this activity will become an annual one, as a way to ensure that all of our students have the opportunity to develop a meaningful connection. 

All statistics and facts are from:

Vaillancourt, Dr. Tracy. “School-Based Mental Health.” PHE Canada Healthy School Communities National Forum, Nov. 2019.

“Youth and Mental Health 101.” The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. 

By Erin Derbyshire