School board to train teachers on mental health

by | Jan 31, 2014 | News

Victoria Quiroz, Opinion Editor

Mental well-being issues are reported to affect one in every five students, according to the Toronto District School Board.

And so, last Tuesday, the TDSB, Canada’s largest school board, unveiled a new plan to address mental health issues among public school students. The four-year plan will equip every public school in the district with a mental health team. All school staff, including teachers, support staff and caretakers will be trained in youth mental health, and there will be an increase of programs that raise awareness about mental health issues.

This is a huge step forward for Toronto’s public school system, and the initiative to decrease the social stigma of mental unwellness. However, when it comes to an effort for something that can be so particular depending on the situation, I’m left wondering how effective a widespread campaign can actually be.

The strategy was first announced in February of 2013 following findings from a 2011 survey. Large percentages of students who participated in the survey, reported themselves as excessively tired, having difficulty concentrating, often losing sleep and feeling like crying.

TDSB director of education Donna Quan spoke with reporters about the new strategy at Rosedale Heights School of the Arts, where the issue of mental wellness has been addressed for several years. Students at Rosedale can participate in lunch hour yoga programs, meditation and a weekly wellness group.

I am an alumna of Rosedale Heights. Although I’ll never be someone to wax poetic over my high school years, I will admit to feeling a small swell of pride upon hearing my alma mater was leading the charge.

Still, there is a limit to what the TDSB, and students, can expect of their teachers. The training teachers will undergo is imperative to this cause, but it will not be able to provide the level of help many students desperately need.  When a teacher runs several courses, along with extra-curricular activities, they cannot be expected to be able to notice mental health issues in students and give them the attention needed.

What the TDSB needs are trained youth counselors in schools that can give students with these issues professional help. I see the plan that has been unveiled as a school board-wide Band-Aid that will only pacify and do nothing to actually heal.

Again, I emphatically agree with the decision to provide training in mental health issues to all school staff. Giving school staff the tools to understand and help their students is an invaluable addition to public schools. Yet it shouldn’t be regarded as a solution. Many teachers already go above and beyond their job descriptions every day. By adding another level to what they’re expected to do not only are we placing an unfair amount of responsibility on them, we’re doing a disservice to their students.

Mental health issues do not follow guidelines or anything regarding structure. They can’t be assessed by checking off boxes on a list. I don’t know the specificities of the training teachers will have but I’m certain it’s not as thorough as the years of school that mental health professionals have under their belts.

Training teachers in recognizing mental health issues is a step in the right direction, but only that – a step. I realize funding is at the core of this issue, as is with everything in the public service sector. But what we need is a reminder to not remain stagnant on these developments. These issues need to remain at, or near, the top of the list, if and when funding becomes available. Mental health issues are ever changing and expanding, and our programs to help treat them should do the same.