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Canadians are talking about mental health like never before, through newspapers, social media, radio and television. We are finally asking the critical questions as we work together to address the challenges of mental illness.
Schools are increasingly viewed as an essential part of the system of care for children and youth. Simply put, it is where most children are and where their universal needs of development in the physical, emotional, learning, and social areas are met and nurtured. The evidence is now clear, identifying:
- the 15-20 percent prevalence of mental health illness and distress among children and youth1
- the challenges in promotion, prevention and intervention in child and youth mental health2
- the ways in which mental health is connected with well-being, school success and retention. When children are experiencing mental illnesses or mental distress, there are both short- and long-term consequences: children with mental health problems are absent 40 percent more school days and underachieve, and 14 percent of school dropout cases are related to mental health disorders.3
Mental health literacy
Teacher roles are changing as they find themselves on the front line of child and youth mental health. Research has indicated that teachers are often overwhelmed by students’ mental health concerns, which pose a serious threat to their ability to work effectively. And, while most teachers report feeling inadequately prepared to take on this important role, they are unanimous in their recognition of its importance. They report being eager to learn more.4
Mental health literacy in education is broadly defined as a range of cognitive, social and professional skills that promote mental health and wellness for students, families, teachers and school communities. Teachers, in their role as caring adults, can – and do – make a positive difference in the lives of students through their professional knowledge, supportive relationships, cultural and community awareness, and inclusive attitudes and practices. It is important to be clear that their role does not stretch to being a mental health expert, but rather the caring professional who notices, understands and positions student behaviour and performance as a function of well-being (physical and mental). The expected outcomes of mental health literacy for teachers and school leaders include increased awareness of the connection between mental health and engagement in school and work, and knowledge of existing resources that support wellness and how to access them.
Teachers and mental health
Mental health is important for teachers and for students, and research has helped us better understand how each can affect the other. We know that teachers’ reports of higher levels of stress are related to higher levels of stress among primary school students, and that higher levels of teacher stress are connected to lower achievement and academic disengagement for students.5 These data, however, do not paint a complete picture.
In 2014 we investigated what teacher education programs in Canada were teaching preservice students about child and youth mental health.6 We crossed the country holding round-tables, interviews, focus groups and informal conversations with teachers and teacher educators, asking what teacher education candidates need to support their understanding of mental health. An important theme emerged: teachers need support for their own mental health before they can address the mental health needs of their students. “What about me?” said one teacher. “I’m drowning here and no one is helping me!”
Understanding how to develop and maintain mental health and resilience for teachers is critical in a profession where attrition can mean both the loss of highly qualified teachers from the profession, and the loss of experienced teachers in classrooms. High quality research on the topic of teacher attrition in Canada is lacking, but has been estimated at 30 percent for teachers in the first five years of their career.7 The vast majority of those who leave cite stress, student behavioural problems, workplace stress, or a combination of all three as the reason.8 This loss is a problem on numerous levels: the unacceptably high distress among teachers, the loss of resources that have been dedicated to their education and development, and the impact of their loss on students and the school community.
This “parallel” experience of stress and mental health challenges for both teachers and students led us to develop a resource that places educator well-being front and centre. It is based on the premise that for educators to help students, they must have their own wellness needs met.
Teachers emphasized that they did not want more curriculum resources. As one educator lamented, “There’s no dearth of curriculum out there… I have boxes I could give you.” Rather, they called for resources that would help them support the needs of their students and their own wellness. They needed these resources to be accessible within the limited snippets of time they have available each day before the students arrive and after their administrative and preparatory work is done. Our task became clear: to bring critically important resources to teachers to support mental health at school and work, and do it in a way that works for teachers.
Our vision was to create an innovative website that curated resources – one that was built with teachers, not simply for teachers. It would be intuitive in its use and responsive to the needs of educators. We brought together a Working Group that included educators, school leaders, mental health professionals and researchers and used an active and iterative design process to create the website and the resources within it. Working as a team, we defined the problem as a fundamental lack of learning, exchange and support opportunities to develop mental health literacy that are accessible, relevant to teaching and teachers, and embedded in professional knowledge and practice.
We formed three working groups, to approach challenges in supporting:
- teacher mental well-being
- student mental well-being in elementary schools
- student mental well-being in secondary schools.
Each group worked to identify and fill gaps in available resources; for example, the teacher wellness group came up with a brief “tip sheet” and shared the things they wish they had known as new teachers that would have made a positive difference in their personal and professional well-being. Relevance came from their experience in the education system; accessibility was assured in that it was brief and digestible with links for deeper information. All resources were piloted with a wider audience. This co-production method for developing resources builds on strengths, good relationships, peer support networks, addressing barriers between stakeholders, and creating the conditions for giving and receiving support.
To guide all phases of this project, we also co-developed a number of guiding principles so that no matter what activities or tasks we took on, we were clear in our purpose. These goals included: enhancing teachers’ knowledge, confidence and resources to encourage resilience for their students; enhancing and supporting mental health literacy; engaging teachers in a community of practice; and offering effective and practical strategies to support their own and their students’ mental health.
We focused on the lived experience and expertise of teachers as well as the evidence-based literature. In identifying which intervention programs were evidence-based, we undertook detailed analyses of the quality of the research evidence and the strength of recommendations for universal and early intervention programs spanning resilience, anxiety, depression, and mindfulness for students and teachers, that also included occupational health and safety for teachers.9 We also developed a list of criteria for curating the external resources for mental health and deciding those that would be included on our site.
We worked closely with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), who not only provided a wealth of excellent resources, but who have the technical expertise and capacity to create a new kind of web-based source for tools designed specifically for the needs of teachers, including:
- Tip Sheets that provide the quick “Top 10” list for teachers who have five minutes between tasks to find ideas for supporting themselves or their student
- Podcasts that can be played while commuting to work
- Print Media that provides a “deeper dive” for those who wish for it.
We created these tools and resources when we had a synergy of interest and expertise within our Working Group, along with the research evidence to support the tools.
The result, www.TeachResiliency.ca, was officially launched in May 2017. Teach Resiliency serves as an online access point through which educators can search and organize relevant evidence-informed mental health resources. All resources are, as directed by our Working Group, “searchable, digestible, and social.”
Plans and evaluation
There are plans to develop an online community of practice, and for an empirical evaluation of users’ experiences of Teach Resiliency. Preliminary assessment of available resources and the framework of Teach Resiliency was conducted through a mixed methods case study.10 Results suggest that participants viewed the website as effective, indicating their intention to reuse the tool and recommend it to others. In particular, participants were pleased with the accessibility of the online access. One participant shared:
I definitely would [recommend this tool] as there is so much here and it is all in one place. It saves time in trying to search various resources to solve a problem. It also presents information in a variety of formats to adapt to different situations.
This project has demonstrated that bringing together teachers, schools, mental health practitioners and researchers to develop practical, evidence-informed strategies and practices to support child and youth mental health is itself a process that supports educators. Developing longer-term and ongoing connections promises to further support resiliency and mental health wellness. We have discovered that learning together fosters knowledge, not only regarding what is available, but of who to call and how to open up dialogue. We hope that a more visible, ongoing network of activities for teachers will also help normalize mental health awareness and further reduce the stigma.
TeachResiliency is a new kind of resource – a searchable data base designed with teachers, featuring co-created resources for mental health and resilience that align with the best research evidence and respond to their needs, their lives, and their classrooms. When you ask teachers what works, what they need, and what their students need, they have terrific ideas!
The Teach Resiliency Website
www.TeachResiliency.ca is designed to support mental health and resilience for teachers and their students. The site includes quick search functions, podcasts, videos and tip sheets on topics including teacher stress, resilience, mental health, and workplace health. The site and all materials are accessible through any smart phone, mobile device or computer.
TeachResiliency.ca is a partnership with Western University, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), and Physical & Health Education Canada (PHE). The project is funded by Physical & Health Education Canada with support from The Cooperators.
Photo: courtesy Susan Rodger, Kathryn Hibbert and Alan Leschied
First published in Education Canada, September 2017
For more information about the EdCan Network’s Educator Well-Being: A Key To Success Students Symposium
1 R. C. Kessler, P. Berglund, O. Demler et al, “Lifetime Prevalence and Age-of-Onset Distributions of DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication,” Archives of General Psychiatry 62, no. 6 (2005): 593-602.
2 K. Grimes and G. Roberts, Return on Investment – Mental Health Promotion and Mental Illness Prevention (Ottawa: Canadian Institute for Health Information, 2011).
3 D. Santor, K. Short, and B. Ferguson, Taking Mental Health to School: A policy oriented paper on school-based mental health for Ontario (Ottawa: The Provincial Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health at CHEO, August 2009).
4 D. M. Rothi, G. Leavey, and R. Best, “On the Front-Line: Teachers as active observers of pupils’ mental health,” Teaching and Teacher Education 24 (2008).
5 A. K. Arens and A. J. S. Morin, “Relations Between Teachers’ Emotional Exhaustion and Students’ Educational Outcomes,” Journal of Educational Psychology 108, no. 6 (2016): 800–813S.
6 S. Rodger, A. Leschied, and K. Hibbert, Mental Health Education in Canada: An analysis of teacher education and provincial/territorial curricula (Physical and Health Education Canada, 2014).
7 S. Rodger, A. Leschied, and K. Hibbert, Mental Health Education in Canada.
8 Canadian Teacher Federation, “Teacher Recruitment and Retention: Why teachers enter, stay or leave the teaching profession,” Economic and Member Services Bulletin (Ottawa: October 2004).
9 S. Rodger, R. Bourdage, K. Hancock, et al, “Supporting Students: A GRADE analysis of the research on student wellness and classroom mental health support, Canadian Journal of School Psychology (Dec. 2016).
10 R. Bourdage, “Supporting Educator Access to Evidence-Informed School-Based Mental Health Programs: An effectiveness evaluation” (2017).