Schools must become ‘hub’ of mental health support, says OISE’s Dr. Katreena Scott

OISE.utoronto.ca – oise/About OISE – Jackson Lecture speaker says schools can fill major cracks, gaps in mental health system
June 1, 2017.   By Lindsey Craig

More than 300 people attended OISE’s Jackson Lecture on May 30 to hear Dr. Katreena Scott, one of the world’s leading mental health experts, address one of society’s most pressing concerns – kids and mental health.

The talk, titled, Mind the Gap: Schools and Our Mental Health System, focused on the enormous opportunity Scott says schools have to bridge the cracks and gaps in the youth mental health system.

Test your mental health knowledge in our ‘streeter’ video series – then hear the correct answers from Dr. Katreena Scott:

OISE News hits the streets to test your mental health knowledge. Watch the playlist above as we reveal our video series and questions. (OISETube)


Statistics on youth mental health problems demonstrate the importance of addressing them – 70 per cent of mental health challenges begin in childhood or adolescence, and in Canada, 1.2 million – or one in five – youth experience mental health issues.

Noting the amount of time kids spend at school – often six to eight hours a day – Scott said schools can become a “hub” of mental health support, by bringing together psychologists, social workers, teachers, parents and the child.

“What if, instead of calling the parents and taking the problem out of the school, the school became the centre for help?” she said.

Dr. Scott’s impact

Scott has been making an impact in the realm of mental health for many years. The well-published scholar and hands-on clinician is the Canada Research Chair in Family Violence Prevention and Intervention, OISE’s Associate Chair of the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development, and the program coordinator of the School and Clinical Child Psychology program.

She has also played a key role providing advanced training to PhD-level psychology students across Canada who are involved with schools and mental health.

Learn more about OISE’s team of mental health experts

‘Wish all the teachers at my school had been there’

Scott’s one-hour speech was well-received by the engaged crowd of students, teachers, researchers and members of the public.

“It was a really interesting talk,” said Toronto District School Board kindergarten teacher Roilui Sin, who teaches kindergarten kids with social-emotional difficulties. “I just kept thinking, ‘I wish all of the teachers at my school had been here’.”

OISE Dean Glen Jones also praised the event for shedding light on a crucial topic.

“I thought it was an extraordinary, thoughtful, accessible lecture on one of the most significant issues facing education today,” he said.

Importance of ‘connectedness’ to school

Among the many points discussed, the importance of “school connectedness” was emphasized as a key factor in a child’s mental health and well-being ­– and how that health and well-being suffers when a child’s sense of connectedness is lacking.

Scott explained that a child’s sense of achievement at school, perception of being included by others and treated fairly by their teacher, all play a role in how connected they feel to the school environment – and in turn, his or her mental health.

“Children who come to school tired, hungry and without appropriate clothing and materials and who are in classes where their teachers feel overwhelmed, are most likely to have their sense of connectedness plummet. This can be a catalyst for a cascade of failures that drive children towards mental health problems,” she explained.

Scott examined this idea with a child she called Sarah, a girl she described as having trouble concentrating in school, and whose parents were struggling with their own mental health difficulties. As a result of her continued troubles in the classroom, and because her teachers were unable to find ways to help Sarah feel competent and connected, mental health problems began to take hold.

“She starts to hate school, she becomes discouraged. When she has a problem, she either gives up, or blows up. And by 14 she’s having full panic attacks she doesn’t understand,” Scott said.

Noting the importance of intervening at an early age, she said, “If we don’t work really early on to see how we can help ensure kids are on a healthy trajectory, we put kids at risk for major issues later in life.”

Most at risk: Kids who experience abuse, neglect, violence and more

Addressing problems of mental health in youth is crucial for many reasons, Scott reminded. Kids who experience adversities in childhood such as abuse, neglect, exposure to domestic violence or having a parent with mental health issues are most likely to have problems. Those children who have experienced many of such adversities are:

  • 4.4 times as likely to report two or more weeks of depression in the past year
  • 12.2 times as likely to have ever attempted suicide
  • 10.3 times as likely to have ever injected drugs
  • 7.4 times as likely to consider self an alcoholic

Scott explained that schools should be a centerpiece of preventing and dealing with mental health issues since they are already well-positioned to do so. For example, schools provide access to the child, are organized and structured, involve adults who can help deliver programs, and “academic achievement is impacted by mental health,” she said.

Educate about symptoms, conditions, help

Scott’s recommendations include continuing to educate teachers and educators about the symptoms of mental health problems, the conditions in which mental health problems develop and the help which is available.

She also stresses the need to strengthen reciprocal partnerships between schools and community mental health professionals to create seamless, bidirectional access to care. In addition, Scott recommends more robust early training of teachers on mental health and of mental health professionals working in schools.

The consequences in failing to do so, she said, can be catastrophic.

“Let’s come together, use our mental health knowledge and wrap it around the child to give them the support they need,” she said. “Some might say it costs too much. But it’s not nearly as costly as the status quo. It’s time to reimagine.”

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