Equity, School Community, Well-being

What are effective approaches to improving students’ mental well-being?

(108.31 kB / pdf)


Youth mental health is of great concern in Canada and around the world. The Canadian Mental Health Association estimates that 10-20% of Canadian youth are affected by a mental disorder; other studies indicate even higher rates of depression, behavioural issues, and bullying in school settings. In addition to problems with attendance associated with these issues, learning is also often negatively impacted. Many researchers and practitioners believe that incorporating mental health programming into curricula is critical to addressing this issue. When the Mental Health Commission of Canada released the nation’s first national mental health strategy in 2012, child and youth mental health was identified as a priority and school-based programs were suggested as an effective tool to promote mental health.

Many programs have been implemented on a board, district, or provincial level in Canada; a recent scan published by the School-based Mental Health and Substance Abuse (SBMHSA) consortium identified over 100 programs currently in use across the country. The challenge in determining which programs are most effective lies in the lack of evidence-based research. While the body of research around school-based mental health programs is growing steadily, it is scattered, often evaluating a single program in a single setting and few programs have more than one or two evaluations. Based on this limited evidence, two programs were strongly recommended in the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Toolkit developed by the Canadian Prevention Science Cluster (Atlantic). They are Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS) and Second Step. Another program, Zippy’s Friends, achieved positive results in a Quebec study.

Despite the scattered nature of program evaluation, the research that does exist indicates a common understanding on the characteristics of an effective program. School based programs should:

  • be part of a comprehensive school health initiative and reach all students rather than targeting those identified as having mental health issues;
  • be collaborative – with educators, students, parents, community agencies, and health providers working together;
  • focus on promotion of positive mental health rather than reaction to mental illness;
  • be adaptable to meet the needs and resources of the setting.

Additionally, attention must be paid to how programs are implemented in schools. Even when adapted to suit the local circumstances, programs must be delivered with fidelity to the original design. The process and outcomes must be closely monitored to ensure the desired results are achieved. Resources need to be available for training and support of program delivery personnel.

The mental well-being of children and youth is a critical issue for parents, educators, health care providers, researchers, and policy-makers. These groups need to work together not only to continue gathering evidence on programming models, but to also begin building effective or promising programs into curricula now.






Dufour, S., Denoncourt, J., & Mishara, B. L. (2011). Improving children’s adaptation: New evidence regarding the effectiveness of Zippy’s Friends, a school mental health promotion program. Advances in School Mental Health Promotion, 4(3), 18-28.

Government of Alberta. (2013). Mental health capacity building in schools initiative. Author.

Guyn Cooper Research Associates. (2013). Issue brief: Social and emotional learning in Canada. Carthy Foundation and Max Bell Foundation.

Kutcher, S. (2013). Bringing schools to mental health and bringing mental health to schools: Challenges, confusions and opportunities. MASS Journal, Spring, 12-15.

Kutcher, S., McLuckie, A., & Child for Youth Advisory Committee, Mental Health Commission of Canada. (2010). Evergreen: A child and youth mental health framework for Canada. Calgary, AB: Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Leadbeater, B. J., Gladstone, E., Yeung Thompson, R. S., Sukhawathanakul, P., & Desjardins, T. (2012). Getting started: Assimilatory process of uptake of mental health promotion and primary prevention programmes in elementary schools. Advances in School Mental Health Promotion, 5(4), 258-276.

Leahy, M., & Robb, C. (2013). Building a better school environment for youth with mental health and addiction issues. Toronto, ON: Children’s Mental Health Ontario.

LeBlanc, J. C., Parkington, K., Varatharasan, N., Donato, A., & Bilsbury, T. (2013). Social and emotional learning programs for schools. CPSC Atlantic.

Levitt, J. M., Saka, N., Hunter Romanelli, L., & Hoagwood, K. (2007). Early identification of mental health problems in schools: The status of instrumentation. Journal of School Psychology, 45(2), 163-191. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jsp.2006.11.005

Manion, I., Short, K. H., & Ferguson, B. (2013). A snapshot of school-based mental health and substance abuse in Canada: Where we are and where it leads us. Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 28(1), 119-135.

Mental Health Commission of Canada. (2012). Changing directions, changing lives: The mental health strategy for Canada. Calgary, AB: Author.

Morrison, W., Kirby, P., & Joint Consortium for School Health. (2010). Schools as a setting for promoting positive mental health: Better practices and perspectives (literature review). Charlottetown, PE: Joint Consortium for School Health

Morrison, W., Kirby, P., & Joint Consortium for School Health. (2010). Schools as a setting for promoting positive mental health: Better practices and perspectives. Charlottetown, PE: Joint Consortium for School Health.

O’Mara, L., & Lind, C. (2013). What do we know about school mental health promotion programmes for children and youth? Advances in School Mental Health Promotion, 6(3), 203-224.

Omstead, D., Canales, C., Perry, R., Dutton, K., Morrison, C., & Hawe, P. (2009). Learning from turbulent, real-world practice: Insights from a whole-school mental health promotion project. Advances in School Mental Health Promotion, 2(2), 5-16.

Paglia-Boak, A., Adlaf, E. M., Hamilton, H. A., Beitchman, J. H., Wolfe, D., & Mann, R. E. (2012). The mental health and well-being of Ontario students 1991-2011: Detailed OSDUHS findings. (CAMH Research Document Series No. 34). Toronto: ON: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Santor, D., & Bagnell, A. L. (2008). Enhancing the effectiveness and sustainability of school-based mental health programs: Maximizing program participation, knowledge uptake and ongoing evaluation using internet-based resources. Advances in School Mental Health Promotion, 1(2), 17-28.

Santor, D., & Bagnell, A. L. (2012). Maximizing the uptake and sustainability of school-based mental health programs: Commercializing knowledge. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 21(1), 81-92.

Santor, D., Short, K., & Ferguson, B. (2009). Taking mental health to school: A policy-oriented paper on school-based mental health for Ontario. Ottawa, ON: The Provincial Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health at CHEO.

School-Based Mental Health and Substance Abuse (SBMHSA) Consortium. (2013). School-based mental health in Canada: A final report. Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Tilleczek, K., & Lezeu, K. (in press). Journeys in Youth Mental Health. Education Canada

Ttofi, M. M., & Farrington, D. P. (2011). Effectiveness of school-based programs to reduce bullying: A systematic and meta-analytic review. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 7(1), 27-56.

Wei, Y., Kutcher, S., & Szumilas, M. (2011). Comprehensive school mental health: An integrated “School-based pathway to care” model for Canadian secondary schools. McGill Journal of Education, 46(2), 213-229.

Weist, M. D., & Murray, M. (2008). Advancing school mental health promotion globally. Advances in School Mental Health Promotion, 1(sup1), 2-12.

Wells, G., Biewener, M., Whitman, C. V., Sebian, J., Popp, J., Short, K., . . . Weist, M. D. (2011). The formation of a Canada-United States school mental health alliance. Advances in School Mental Health Promotion, 4(3), 42-54.

Meet the Expert(s)

Valerie Campbell

Valerie Campbell is a PhD Candidate in Educational Studies, a Project Manager at the Young Lives Research Lab, and a Sessional Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Universit...

Read More