After reading comments in response to my last blog post about educating parents along with students, I was reminded of how unequal our “universal” public education system really is. Within the province of Ontario, each School Board sets priorities on how to spend funds given specifically to address mental health. Within each Board, each school Principal devotes varying amounts of resources to the issue. And, within each school, there are wide variances in the number of teachers and staff who have been trained in mental health awareness. Without specific direction from the Ministry of Education, this un-universal system will continue, giving some children the support they need, while leaving others to suffer.
Looking back, I see that my daughter’s school-based anxiety surfaced in grade 4, but went undiagnosed until grade 6 when she was fortunate to have a teacher who listened to my concerns that she was having social difficulties in class. That teacher referred her to the school support team who then set up an appointment with the Child and Youth Worker (CYW). At this meeting, the CYW recognized that her issues were more than just the usual “puberty and friends” issues, and recommended medical help. Her diagnosis and treatment stems directly from the actions of the school.
But I know we are one of the lucky families. Not every school has a CYW, or the ratio of children to CYW is so high that she/he cannot possibly see every child in need. Teachers are just beginning to receive training in mental health awareness. But the rollout is slow. Professional Development (PD) day agendas are set by the Board and Teacher Unions. Until the Board designates PD time to specifically address mental health awareness in the classroom, many children will continue to suffer unnecessarily.
Some will argue that the school is not responsible to diagnose a child’s mental health. I agree they are not solely responsible. However, they are another set of eyes and ears who can watch out for children. And sometimes school staff are (sadly) the only caring adult in a child’s life watching out for them. Further, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs argues that until a person’s basic needs are met, they cannot focus on self-actualization (with education being part of this need). A focus on mental health training in schools is not just a “nice-to-have” but it is imperative to student success.
To accomplish this, the Ministry of Education needs to put training funds into a non-transferable envelope, like funding provided for Special Education. They also must insist boards put this issue into their Board Improvement Plans so it is a priority at both the Board and school levels. Until this happens, both Boards and schools will see the issue as an optional initiative that they will address, if funds and time allow. And, as we all know, when we say we will get to it one day, that “it” is the easiest thing to push to the back burner.