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Mental Health: A Changing Landscape

December 5, 2018 David Grauwiler

You and I are part of a changing landscape related to mental health in our communities. Many of us remember the covert language of our parents regarding mental health challenges. There was the neighbour who “had a nervous breakdown” and the family member who was “peculiar.” It seems that we are surrounded on all sides by the growing awareness that mental health belongs to all of us. Today we hear our kids refer to depression and anxiety as a part of their lived experience, and we are reminded on a daily basis that without mental health there is no health.

Mental health is not as simple as drawing a line between those with a diagnosis and those without one. Mental health has been described as a continuum that spans from languishing to flourishing. Discussions around mental health identify that while someone may or may not have a diagnosis, their mental health can be “stuck” and far from flourishing. Those things that contribute to individual “flourishing” are better understood when we think in terms of better mental health. Rather than an “illness focus” mental health is “….a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community” (World Health Organization 2014).

It comes as no surprise that schools are communities within the community. Made up of students, teachers and nonteaching staff, they are workplaces and learning spaces with a complex mix of social networks. Understanding the permeability of the school community with the community at large is essential in building a better understanding of the role of the school in the development of positive mental health. While school does not constitute the entirety of our lives, it does constitute a significant portion of awake time for all members of the school community. Students spend a third of their waking hours in school. Teachers and nonteaching staff spend even more time in the workplace than students. Because of this, mental health must be supported in school as part of our “whole” lives.

Struggling On A Daily Basis

The discussion of mental health in schools often turns to a focus on clinical interventions and the cohort of therapists, psychologists and other helping professionals. While there is an important role for this type of work, it is critical to keep in mind that clinical supports and interventions are focused on the highest and most obvious needs. Within the school community it is clear that, “In severe cases, they (mental illnesses) prevent students from regularly attending class, but more often students simply struggle with these problems on a daily basis, leading to further social and academic functioning concerns” (SBMHSA Consortium 2013, p.1). Many children and youth with mental health problems will not receive intervention. “Most children will not receive treatment for mental health difficulties” (Offord et al. 1987; Rohde, Lewinsohn and Seeley 1991; Waddell, et al. 2013 in SBMHSA Consortium 2013, p.1).

This brings into focus the need to think beyond interventions and supports for those students who are diagnosed. While the needs of these students are important, they are the ones finding support while others languish with compromised but undiagnosed mental health issues.

Child and youth mental health problems are prevalent. That being said, adult mental health problems are also prevalent, with more than one in five adults experiencing a mental health challenge at any given time (Mental Health Commission of Canada 2013). Seen through the lens of social and emotional well-being, classrooms, schools and communities become optimal environments for promoting, modelling and encouraging mental health.

Formal And Informal Supports

With a broader understanding of the needs of students, teachers and non-teaching staff, a number of activities and approaches can support flourishing mental health. These include paying attention to the built environment as workplace and classroom. Are there open spaces that welcome reflection and rest? Are there spaces with natural light and daily opportunities to go outside?

A more holistic view of mental health includes weaving health, well-being and mindfulness into the ordinary activities of the day. Do teachers and nonteaching staff use opportunities to model positive approaches to well-being for all community members?

Recently, attention has been focused on our uneasy relationships with technology. A good deal has been said about the overexposure students have to blue light technology. The reality is that students, teachers and non-teaching staff all may be overexposed, unrested and possibly addicted to their “smart” technology.

Not surprisingly, research shows that too much technology use diminishes our mental and physical health, our relationships and more (Lee et al. 2014). As a society we have not adapted to the rapid onslaught and implications of being connected 24/7. Disconnecting and relating face to face may be one of the most needed skills for us to build together.

Finding the right balance between formal and informal supports seems to be the challenge we will face as we navigate a more open dialogue and experience related to mental health. Formal supports such as mental health capacity builders, clinicians and therapists are engaged as part of broader activities of education, early intervention and health promotion. Strategies that recognize the pervasiveness of mental illness among adults and minors can make space for those who do not have a diagnosis but still need support when they find their mental health is compromised. Informal supports find their home in all aspects of community life and every realm of curricula. Healthy organizational culture, recognition and reward as well as civility and respect build an inclusive community that supports the many who may be having a bad day, facing a crisis, or simply need a safe place to restore mental health and resiliency.


Lee, Y., C. Chang, Y. Lin and Z. Cheng. 2014. “The Dark Side of Smartphone Usage: Psychological Traits, Compulsive Behavior and Technostress.” Computers and Human Behaviour 31 (February 2014), pp. 373–383. (accessed October 19, 2018).

Mental Health Commission of Canada. 2013. Making the Case for Investing in Mental Health in Canada. Mental Health Commission website. (accessed October 19, 2018).

Offord, D.R. et al. 1987. “Ontario Child Health Study II: Six-Month Prevalence of Disorder and Rates of Service Utilization”; Rohde, P., P.M. Lewinsohn and J.R. Seeley. 1991. “Co-morbidity of Unipolar Depression: II. Comorbidity with Other Mental Disorders in Adolescents and Adults”; Waddell, C. et al. 2013. “Creating Comprehensive Children’s Mental Health Indicators for British Columbia.” In SBMHSA Consortium 2013, p.1.

School-Based Mental Health and Substance Abuse (SBMHSA) Consortium. 2013. School-Based Mental Health in Canada: A Final Report. Mental Health Commission of Canada website. (accessed October 19, 2018).

World Health Organization (WHO). 2014. “Mental Health: A State of Well-Being.” WHO website. (accessed October 19, 2018).

David Grauwiler is executive director of the Alberta division of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

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