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Reframing Our Approach to Mental Health Within A School Context

This blog post is provided by Carolyn Fitzgerald from the Lead to Include research team.

Conversations around mental health have changed enormously over the last several decades. I cannot recall a time in my childhood when a teacher mentioned the words “mental health”. In contrast, there is now a strong push for educators to consider the mental health of students. For example, Ontario’s Equity and Inclusive Education document specifically identifies mental health challenges as barriers to learning that need to be addressed. Ontario educators have access to Supporting Minds, a handbook to educate teachers about mental health and to provide strategies for use in the classroom.

Even more recently, there is increased attention on teacher well-being, largely in response to the acknowledgement that teaching can be a very stressful profession. Most provincial teacher federations now offer resources specific to supporting the mental health of its members.

Largely absent from these discussions is a focus on the mental health of school principals and vice-principals, despite that school leaders have incredibly stressful jobs. Surely this fact alone warrants more open conservations about how school leaders address their own mental health needs while working to ensure the well-being of students and staff. However, I see an additional opportunity that comes with acknowledging the mental health needs of school administrators. Specifically, if we acknowledge that everyone working and learning in a school community has mental health needs, does it not makes sense that our efforts to meet those needs be inclusive of everyone in the school community? If so, instead of asking what teachers can do to support the mental health of students, and what administrators can do to support the mental health needs of their staff, we should ask “what can we do to nurture the mental health of our school community?” In other words, we shift our goals to focus on how an entire school community can function in a way to support the well-being of all its stakeholders.

This approach invites us to think holistically about mental health in a school context, and to generate an entirely different set of responses. For example, we know being physically active can have a positive effect on mental health. If we “silo” the mental health needs of students, staff, and administrators, we might ask teachers to ensure their students engage in some form of physical activity as part of their regular school day (think DPA, or Daily Physical Activity). We might encourage teachers to go for a walk on their lunch break. I suspect school administrators would be left out of the considerations all together; each administrator would be left on their own to meet their needs for physical activity. However, if we recognize that our entire school community benefits from physical activity – and that we are more likely to achieve these benefits if physical activity becomes part of our school culture, then we approach this issue with a different set of goals in mind. We are invited to find solutions to ensure that every one gets to participate, be they students, staff or administrators, and according to every one’s individual set of abilities. DPA does nothing for teachers or administrators, but setting aside Friday afternoons for a whole school walk or wheel around the surrounding community is an invitation for everyone to participate.

This approach help address the mental health of everyone involved, but also creates opportunities for role modelling, coaching, and building relationships, by the very fact that an entire school is involved in a shared goal. Herein lies an opportunity for creating a school climate in which we demonstrate care and concern for the well-being of everyone. Every person – students, staff and administrators - are invited to be a part of the action, and part of the solution. I see this as the essence of inclusive education.

I am heartened by the new openness with which we talk about the mental health needs of our children and youth, and the growing openness with which we acknowledge the mental health needs of our teachers. I am hopeful a similar shift will happen for school administrators (see this paper for an excellent consideration of how lessons learned about inclusivity during the pandemic can help administrators in long term planning). However, in abolishing this final taboo subject, I am most hopeful we might finally come to understand that mental health is something that can belong to an entire community, and that when we nurture the wellbeing of a community, every person within that community reaps the benefits.

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