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Our Path Forward Together to Support Student Mental Health

Gail Lalonde

The most recent response to COVID-19 once again left learning routines and locations altered, causing stress for educators, students and families. Many have mixed feelings about the continued uncertainties related to the pandemic and what this may mean in the coming weeks and months. As an educator, you won’t be able to take away the stressors your students feel, but you may be able to help to minimize their impact. School Mental Health Ontario is here to help with that work, as we support you and the Mental Health Lead in your board.

Increased feelings of anxiety, worry, disappointment and sadness are natural and expected responses to the continued unpredictability and uncertainty that exists in schools as a result of the pandemic. Calm and supportive caring adults, a chance to see friends in person or online and predictable daily routines can help. That’s a key role you can play in your daily work as an educator.

There has been much discussion about the impact that school closures, public health measures and changes to daily life have had on young people. Many studies are currently underway to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on child and youth mental health. Available cross-sectional studies report feelings of anxiety, sadness and loneliness associated with the pandemic. This is to be expected with the backdrop of a global pandemic that has impacted daily life for young people. Although this emerging data provides early insights as to the impact, continued research and monitoring is necessary to determine the full effects over time.

While the pandemic has impacted everyone, some students, staff and families have carried greater burdens. In addition to COVID-specific health concerns, grief and loss, many students, staff and families will have endured significant financial and social hardship as a result of needed public health restrictions. Notably, these pandemic-related hardships have disproportionately affected Black, Indigenous and racialized students, those of lower socioeconomic status, newcomers, 2SLGBTQIA+ young people and students with pre-existing mental health concerns and/or special education needs. Ontario educators have been doing their best under extremely difficult circumstances. Educators must continue to address the lived realities, racial and other disparities and educator biases that can impact students’ experiences in Ontario schools.

So, what can be done? While some families and caregivers will have the available resources to access private and community based mental health support, most will rely on services and supports available in schools. While it is not an educator’s job to diagnose or provide treatment, you are a critical and supportive link between students who are struggling and the resources they need to flourish. Educators are sometimes the first to notice when a student demonstrates signs of a mental health problem. You can help as you listen and link to appropriate supports. There is a circle of support for students inside and outside the school.

Early identification of mental health concerns can help prevent future mental health problems. While each board will have specific procedures for accessing mental health support for students, the following provincial resources may help you to notice, identify and connect students with appropriate services.

While targeted and professional mental health supports may be necessary for some, there is much that classroom educators do daily that bolster and support student mental health across the province. Caring relationships, supportive learning environments and daily activities and practices with an intentional focus on mental health and wellbeing help students flourish and achieve their potential. To support you, sample lesson plans, activities and classroom resources can be accessed on the educator page of the School Mental Health Ontario Website.

Although the pandemic will continue to evolve, as we move closer towards a recovery stage public schools will continue to play a critical role in and leverage of the protective factors that support student mental health and well-being. Schools are extremely well-positioned for daily wellness promotion and culturally sustaining social-emotional skill-building, early identification of mental health problems and prevention and early intervention service delivery.

Looking forward, it is clear that an ongoing commitment to mental health will be an essential component of supporting our children and youth. This will require support at all levels of intervention:

  • Training and resources for classroom educators and other school staff to amplify the promotive and protective elements of school, notice and support students with emerging mental health problems early and connect students to appropriate board professional support services.
  • Targeted training and resources for school and system leaders to support the development of mentally healthy schools and classrooms.
  • Timely access to Regulated Mental Health Professionals such as board social work and psychology staff for further triage, assessment and intervention.
  • Continued development of strong safety nets and pathways for those needing specialized or intensive supports.

Remember to Take Care of Yourself

While the media and public support has focused heavily on health care workers, educators are also superheroes of the pandemic. The past two years have been difficult for so many people, and education professionals are working above and beyond to help keep young people well. Educators are doing all they can to connect with and help students not only in their learning, but also in bolstering their well-being. It is essential that educators be supported in taking care of their own mental health and well-being and that of their families. Remember to pace yourself, and to recognize that your best is all you can give and that is more than enough.  

For access to further resources and materials visit: School Mental Health Ontario.

Gail Lalonde is a Learning and Training Lead for School Mental Health Ontario.

ONE-CALL Desk Reference For Educators: This resource provides educators with a step-by-step approach to support students when they exhibit signs of emotional or behavioural difficulties.

ONE-CALL Desk reference – Expanded Version for Remote Learning: This adapted tool is designed to help educators notice and respond to student mental health problems during remote learning.

6 Rs Guidance Teachers Resource: The 6Rs provide an example of an approach that can be used by guidance teachers in supporting students seeking help for a problem with their mental health.