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Viewpoints: Mental health relies on teachers

April 19, 2016 David Swann, Alberta Mental Health Review Committee

At some point every Albertan is touched by mental illness and addiction. These topics have been dear to me as a medical doctor and then MLA, and I have spoken at length in the media, to practitioners and in the legislature about the need for specific reforms in how we deal with this most profound human suffering. A change in government last spring again breathed life into the debate, and one of the new premier’s first actions was to create a task force to examine mental illness and addictions in Alberta. I was asked to be co-chair. In February, the government released the final report and promised a fundamental change in how mental health, and illness, is approached in Alberta.

In the preparation of the report, I, along with the other panel members, was privileged to hear from a passionate and thoughtful array of health users, government and non-government organizations, and practitioners from teachers to doctors to social workers to psychologists and to frontline responders like the police and EMS. We learned much about what is working remarkably well and also what is failing both patients and professionals alike.

Teachers, in particular, are key to an improved mental wellness system. Most mental illness shows indications in childhood, and early identification of emotional, behavioural and learning problems has a huge impact on improving health and educational outcomes. We know that teachers know this — the key is how do we help teachers help their students?

The mental health and addictions panel heard loud and clear the challenges teachers face and their need for more supports, as well as training in early identification and referrals. Fortunately, the panel also heard potential solutions for enabling teachers to better cope with mental illness among youth.

The attitude of the school, especially in management, was identified as an essential support. This attitude is best represented by policies enabling teachers to access help when needed. Professionals such as qualified school counsellors are vital in establishing this supportive mental health environment. The stigma still associated with mental illness is also a barrier to supporting those with mental illness, whether students, staff or parents. Schools with inclusive cultures, sensitive to LGBTQ issues, are best equipped to support the range of those in need.

In terms of resources for kids, I’m sure most teachers are aware of the Kids Help Phone. This service is inclusive, holistic and accessible 24/7 and addresses many barriers that young people may encounter, including the fear of stigmatization, confidentiality, unawareness of available services, costs and lack of transportation.

What teachers might not know, though, is the extent to which youth have access to mental health information through the Internet, apps, smartphones and social media. We know that they are using technology to seek connection and, sometimes, to find help. Kids Help Phone’s program evaluation of its direct counselling services demonstrated that young people engage with counsellors online about urgent issues that at times involve more risk. These issues include self-injury, suicide and abuse. Of the more than 300 young people who participated in the program evaluation, 75 per cent of them told us they use the Live Chat counselling service because they feel too nervous or uncomfortable to call, or because they do not have enough privacy to talk on the phone (62 per cent).

There is also a systemic benefit to the increase in awareness of mental health in schools. Policies and attitudes that improve conditions for mental well-being for students also increase it for teachers and staff. Teachers have an incredibly demanding job, filled with challenges at both the student and the administration levels. They, too, require a supportive environment and access to help without stigma. As everyone who has stood in a classroom knows, one challenging student can cause not only disruption in the class but also real and considerable stress for the teacher. When help is provided for both teachers and students, the entire class benefits.

I want to close by mentioning a terrific partnership for mental health in schools called the Regional Collaborative Service Delivery (RCSD). The RCSD helps ensure that children, youth and families have access to supports they need to be successful at school and in the community. It is a partnership between school authorities, Alberta Health Services (AHS), Human Services and other community stakeholders. At this point there are 17 RCSD regions across the province, and $64 million has been allocated for the 2015/16 school year.

All of us are responsible for creating healthier living and working conditions, reducing suffering and thereby freeing up funds beyond the health-care system for other programs — like education! ❚

David Swann is co-chair of the Alberta Mental Health Review Committee. He is the leader of the Alberta Liberals and the MLA for Calgary Mountain View.

This opinion column represents the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

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