Although reported numbers vary somewhat, it is safe to say that one in seven young people in BC, or at least 84,000 school-aged students, experience one or more mental health disorders at some point in their young lives. And, of these, only approximately one third receive the treatment they need.

The Challenge

The problems students experience range from anxiety, depression, conduct disorder and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, to psychosis, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Boards of education across the province have been witnessing the results of this growing problem. And, they are not alone. Headlines in major news papers around the globe lament:

“Public Schools Gather Evidence on Students Growing Mental Health Struggles”
Calgary Herald, January, 2018
“Children Face Mental Health Epidemic, Say Teachers”
The Guardian, June 2018
“Are School Ready to Tackle the Mental Health Crisis?”
NEA Today, September 2018
“Growing Mental Health Needs of Students Require Creative Solutions
Globe and Mail, November 2018”

Some Good News: Mental Health Promotion

With a focus on mental health promotion, schools are involved in implementing strategies and programs to support the well-being of all students. Underlying all this work is what Dr. Charlotte Waddell, Director of the Children’s Health Policy Centre, made clear when speaking to trustees at the Trustee Academy in 2017: research shows that problems like anxiety, depression, substance use disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity and others are preventable. And, importantly, schools can make that difference by engaging in well researched programs and approaches for social emotional learning, and by focusing on resilience and strength-based strategies for health and well-being.

Also presenting at that Academy was Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl who is extremely influential in the province. The work she has spearheaded in schools with the Middle Years Development Instrument (MDI) is ground-breaking. Findings from the MDI help educators to understand what contributes to the well-being of their students and grow the conditions that support students. The work of Schonert-Reichl and others on social emotional learning (SEL) is key to all this. Skills that help with goal setting, managing behaviour, building relationships, and processing and remembering information, positively impact mental well-being. The provincial curriculum now includes learning outcomes in personal and social competencies. Schools across the province are providing students with opportunities for social emotional learning.

Another promising piece in the full range of mental health promotion is a curriculum mental health literacy designed by Dr. Stan Kutcher. The curriculum, taught to students by classroom teachers, explains what mental health is, helps students think about the stigma of mental illness, and guides students to find ways to seek help if they feel they need it. UBC has worked with the Ministry of Education to develop a cascading training program so that districts can train leaders who then work with classroom teachers to implement the course in their classrooms.

Second Annual Conference on School and Community Mental Health

On February 4 and 5, the second annual provincial conference on School and Community Mental Health reinforced the value of work underway in school districts. The purpose of the conference was to take this work further by “building capacity of school and community teams to support mental health through a systems leadership approach focusing on mental health promotion.” Over the two days, 500 educators, counsellors, and community agencies, including a team from the BCSTA, engaged and shared innovative ideas, tools and strategies.

A series of keynote speakers presented, including: Peter Senge, professor at MIT whose work promotes shared understanding of complex issues and shared leadership for healthier human systems; Monique Gray Smith, award-winning author and consultant whose work focuses on resilience; Dr. Mark T. Greenberg, whose recent interest is in researching theory and testing effects of programs that facilitate mindfulness and compassion; and, Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, whose work at UBC has centred on social emotional learning and who is the Director of the Human Early Learning Partnership. Maria LeRose, award-winning television producer and interviewer moderated sessions where district staff, and students talked about their own work. Tracy Smyth, a connector and community catalyst facilitated activities where conference participants worked with Systems Thinking Tools such as The Iceberg Model and the Ladder of Inference.

Systems thinking and systems leadership was the prevailing theme of the conference. As outlined in the program, “Systems Leadership in education inspires transformation and instructional best practices leading to student success. Systems Leadership is anchored in self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision-making, self-management and relationship skills.”

Capturing the essence of conference message and illustrating a district’s approach to systems leadership, Jovo Bikic, Assistant Superintendent in Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows, speaks of the work in his district:

In Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows, we’ve spent the last 4 years working towards building a Social Emotional Learning District Framework. SEL came out as a theme in School Growth Plans from schools throughout the district. As we became familiar with Peter Senge’s Compassionate Systems last year, we began to realize we had been incorporating many of the foundational principles of Compassionate Systems in the way we have attempted to embed Social Emotional Learning in the fabric of our school communities. From the beginning, we fostered collaboration by inviting people from diverse educator, leader, and partner groups across the district. We established processes to help us collect information about SEL across all schools through one on one conversations, and then with Kimberly Schonert-Reichl’s support, along with Molly Stewart-Lawlor from UBC, we were able to use the themes to guide our next steps. When we brought together the diverse stakeholders across the district to look at these themes, we ensured that the way we engaged people allowed for authentic and meaningful conversations, and the opportunity for shared experiences and building relationships. We gave people the opportunity to be mindfully introspective before their interactions to lead to authentic conversations that would mobilize change or further strengthen areas of embedded SEL practices. You can’t hope to deeply embed SEL if you don’t role model and practice it in all you do.
We continue to use information from the Early Developmental Index (EDI) and the Middle Years Developmental Instrument (MDI) and the Student Learning Surveys to stimulate staff conversations and reflection throughout our schools. And, reflecting on all of this, we will continue to incorporate the big ideas of Senge’s compassionate systems: collaboration, quality relationships, interpretation of data, continuous engagement, and authentic conversations. These will help us dig deep into our mental models so we find the emergent solutions that will light the way.

Ministers Rob Fleming, Education, and Judy Darcy, Mental Health and Addictions, addressed the participants. Following the conference, they announced an investment of $3,000,000 for school-based mental health programs focusing on prevention, wellness promotion and early intervention.

All 60 school districts will be able to access the funds for staff training sessions, parent information nights, the development of new resource materials for educators, and expanding existing mental wellness programs. The Ministry of Education has also announced the ERASE strategy (expect respect & a safe education) will be expanded to include mental health and well-being and has promised a further mental health & wellness announcement in 2019.

BCSTA Commitment: Professional Learning and Advocacy

Sessions in recent professional learning events for BCSTA members have focused attention on mental health and social emotional Learning. For example, at the 2017 Trustee Academy, Dr. Charlotte Waddell, Director of the Child Mental Health Centre at Simon Fraser University, addressed trustees in her presentation: Children’s Mental Health: What can Schools Do? At the same conference Dr. Evan Adams from the First Nations Health Authority told his One Story of Two Eyed Seeing. Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl introduced trustees to approaches and programs in schools that advance mental well-being. Dr. Shimi Kang presented on Educating Healthy Happy and Self-Motivated Students.

In addition to professional growth opportunities, the BCSTA has policy positions on issues such as health-promoting schools, substance use, bullying, SOGI and child poverty, all of which affect mental health and well-being. Motions have been passed to support advocacy for strategic student-centred mental health for schools, for implementing recommendations contained in the Select Standing Committee on Children and Youth report called “Child and Youth Mental Health in British Columbia: Concrete Actions for Systems Change,” and for developing a gender-based violence prevention strategy for youth.

As part of the Association’s 2018/2019 Strategic Plan, the BCSTA Board of Directors has initiated a trustee based working group to assist with advocacy efforts to address this specific member direction. The purpose of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Mental Health, which is chaired by Laure Dixon, Delta Board Chair (SD37), is to review motions adopted at the 2018 AGM related to mental health issues, and make recommendations to the board of directors about achieving the intent of the motions and about K-12 focused initiatives on mental health. The working group will report the board of directors.

School Districts are Hard at Work

Because of provincial curriculum direction and wide-spread knowledge about the positive effects of social emotional learning, school districts across the province are engaged in promoting mental health and well-being. One example is in Delta (SD37) where the heart of the work starts right from the Mission of the School District: To enable all learners to succeed and contribute their full potential to the future. Out of the mission flows the district’s Framework for Enhancing Student Learning, with goals of connectedness, reading, assessment, and graduation. And from this, flows their strength-based focus on mental health and well-being.

With a Prevention Framework with universal approaches to promote well-being, staff positions devoted to supporting children and youth who may be at-risk, and targeted intervention for students who require additional supports, the district has a multi-pronged approach. Staff are being trained in the mental health literacy curriculum and will be implementing the course in secondary schools. The district has partnerships with other public organizations such as the City, MCFD, and the police to work with students who are at risk. Students are being engaged in conversations about drug use and mental health. And, as Joanna Angelidis, Director of Learning Services, Inclusive Learning notes, it is because of the priority set by the board, and the support they provide, that this work is growing in its capacity to support all students.