Mental health top issue facing schools, coalition says

Posted on June 2, 2011 in Health Debates

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June 1, 2011 .   Louise Brown,  Education Reporter

The troubled hearts and minds of children are becoming a campaign issue in Ontario.

A broad new coalition of hospitals, social workers, children’s aid societies, psychologists, teachers, students and trustees cites the turbulent mental health of today’s students — from anxiety and depression to suicidal feelings — as the “number one issue facing schools today.”

The new Coalition for Children and Youth Mental Health, a network of 26 province-wide groups, has asked each political party to spell out a plan for coping with what some call the “sleeping giant” in schools.

“We wouldn’t let a child walk around with a broken arm, but kids with mental illness suffer just the same,” said Catherine Fife, head of the Ontario Public School Boards Association, part of the coalition.

The coalition’s figures are stark. One in five children suffers from a mental health problem yet some 80 per cent get no help. Ten per cent of youths admit they have tried to kill themselves. Waiting lists for help are growing longer. Budget cuts have caused school boards to cut back on mental health professionals. In a 2009 study of Ontario school boards, a staggering 96 per cent said they were “very” or “extremely” concerned about mental health issues, especially anxiety, mood problems, low self-esteem and thoughts of suicide.

It’s a world-wide worry. In a 2009 study of 1,100 principals in 25 countries, 90 per cent expressed mounting alarm about mental health problems, with Canadian principals more likely than others to say one in five students needs help.

“It’s been the sleeping giant, the elephant in the room for so long — mental health plays a huge role in the school experience yet we have no plan in Ontario for how to deal with it,” said Fife, whose coalition will host a summit Thursday in Toronto on the issue.

Ayesha Jabbar will attend the summit to share her personal story of how a school can provide a lifeline. She was in Grade 9 at Scarborough’s R.H. King Academy when her parents’ marriage broke up and she was diagnosed with clinical depression. She tried to kill herself twice in the following years.

“My family is from South Asia, where depression is seen as something you should just snap out of,” said Jabbar, 21, a social work student at Ryerson University, who now feels she is on a solid treatment plan.

“But the great part was, I had a guidance counsellor who reached out to me when I wasn’t coming to class — otherwise they would have suspended me,” said Jabbar. “She arranged accommodations for me when I was on an emotional roller coaster; they let me take three courses instead of four. I could go for a walk if I got upset. I would work from home for a week or two if I needed space.

“I lucked out; it’s about having someone notice where your head’s at and not jumping to conclusions. Teachers really need Mental Health 101. I can’t imagine where I’d be now if I hadn’t got help.”

Other groups are joining the call for action.

Advocacy group People for Education released a dramatic report Wednesday on the shortage of help for students with special needs. Another coalition of mental health and addiction specialists, including CAMH, met Tuesday in Toronto to make mental health a campaign issue.

But it’s not about turning teachers into psychiatrists; it’s about training them to be an “early warning system,” to know when and where to connect kids with expert help, said Dr. Ian Manion, executive director for the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Children and Youth Mental Health at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. “Teachers are like family doctors; they lack training in mental health issues.”

Some children have true disorders, but others wrestle with anxiety sparked by their parents’ unemployment, or the violence of media images from war zones, or even the pressure of getting into college or university, said Manion. “The pressure to succeed on today’s kids is enormous.”

Psychiatry professor Bruce Ferguson, of the Hospital for Sick Children, points to a growing “deficit of adults in children’s lives — we work and commute longer hours and have less time with our kids to deal with their worries and reassure them.

“It’s a stressful world. Kids need a lot of support.”

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