Groundbreaking Toronto survey on student mental health can create change

Posted on in Education Debates – opinion/editorials – A survey by the Toronto District School Board finds that many students are overwhelmed by anxiesty and loneliness.
Feb 14 2013

It’s no secret that the teenage years provide challenges from which few emerge unscathed. But a new Toronto District School Board survey that shows high levels of student anxiety can be used as a powerful call for change.

According to the Star’s Kris Rushowy, 103,000 students from grades 7 to 12 reported surprisingly high levels of stress, ranging from anxiousness to loss of confidence and loneliness. Believed to be the largest of its kind, the 2011 study provides a snapshot into the emotional lives of teenagers, many of whom are watching parents live through tough economic times while obsessing about their own uncertain future.

There’s no need to exaggerate the report’s conclusions. It is the first of its kind and no one knows whether the problems it highlights are getting worse. The board says it wants to conduct another such study in five years.

Still, given its treasure trove of data, the Toronto board needs to put the findings into action and develop new ways to connect with struggling young people. It’s always better to act before a crisis develops: a teen with anxiety is easier to help than one who has sunk into depression.

One of the most significant findings shows that 46 per cent of high school students (and 34 per cent of upper elementary students) said they were not comfortable seeking help from any adult in their school.

Clearly, educators need to do a better job reaching students — in particular those on the fringe of high school life. These invisible kids don’t benefit from relationships with teachers.

Given heightened concerns about online bullying and teen suicide, it’s a worry that some schools haven’t figured out better ways to help those on the margins.
The good news is that all principals have received the survey data related to their particular school. It should help them tailor programs to the specific needs of their students.

Some good work already underway involves older student volunteers. At schools like Wilfrid Laurier Collegiate in Scarborough and Richview Collegiate in Etobicoke, the principals run student ambassador programs, connecting senior “mentors” to help others deal with stress. For example, if a younger student is vulnerable to bullying, having a mentor who is on the senior football team may well give them some solace and confidence.

Student-led programs cost little but the board also needs to address its funding for school social workers and youth workers. Their specialized training and insight can help turn lives around.

At the same time, teachers’ unions should not hide from the messages sent by this data. Their ban on extracurricular activities can leave vulnerable students disconnected from desperately needed adult support, and should end. As the TDSB’s manager of support services, David Johnston, says, “We don’t want anyone to suffer in silence alone.”

The power of this survey lies in fact that student voices were heard. It can become a catalyst for change — if educators are willing to listen.

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