TORONTO — Amy Nam felt her fatigue give way to frustration as she watched her and her classmates’ mental health deteriorate over the course of their first full pandemic-disrupted school year.
The 17-year-old Toronto student says some of her peers felt they had nowhere to turn for support as COVID-19 uncertainty, the disruptions of virtual learning and social isolation amplified the demands of making the grade.
Nam expects the start of Grade 12 will bring a new set of anxieties about the highly contagious Delta variant and cramming in assignments ahead of university applications.
While some hope the return to the classroom will better student welfare, Nam says that will only be the case if mental health is integrated into the syllabus alongside algebra and Shakespeare.
“The only thing that a pandemic did in relation to mental health was really reveal the cracks in the system,” says Nam, the executive director of youth advocacy group the Reclamation Project.
“We have to take physical education… I think learning about mental and emotional health is just as important.”
Mental health literacy must be at the top of the agenda as students return to school, say experts, calling for emotional skills to be taught as a core part of curricula to help young people cope with the psychological toll of the pandemic.
Emerging research suggests rates of anxiety and depression among Canadian youth climbed during the pandemic, prompting some advocates to warn of a mounting mental health crisis.
Other experts have cautioned against stoking alarm about early data, noting that stress and sadness can be healthy responses to growing up during a pandemic.
There seems to be consensus that the COVID-19 crisis has underscored the need for more mental health supports for Canadian children and teenagers.
In 2019, nearly one in five Canadians aged 15 to 17 rated their mental health as fair or poor, Statistics Canada says. The July 2020 survey also reported crowdsourced data suggesting more than half of youth in this age cohort felt their mental health had worsened during lockdown.
Concerns about youth mental health have been central to the push to send kids back to the classroom. But while school is a safe haven for some students, it’s a minefield of academic and social stresses for others, says Dr. Tyler Black, an emergency child and adolescent psychiatrist at University of British Columbia.
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He worries these pressures will intensify as the ringing school bell sends teachers scrambling to catch up on lesson plans, while neglecting opportunities to help students process the turmoil of the past 17 months in a supportive educational setting.
“There could be an opportunity to introduce literally a mental health curriculum for kids,” says Black. “But we know what they’re going to do. They’re going to say: ‘Alright, open up your textbooks.”’
Many provinces and school boards have made mental health a component of their back-to-school plans. But specialists say mental health literacy is inconsistent across the country, and programs that are didactic or siloed off from normal coursework can do more harm than good.
The Mental Health Literacy Project is striving to fill in these gaps with an evidence-backed curriculum, first designed by Sen. Stan Kutcher and Dr. Yifeng Wei, that has been adopted by hundreds of schools in Canada and abroad, says team lead Andrew Baxter.
The curriculum, which is available for free online, aims to increase knowledge about mental health and disorders, reduce stigma and inform students about available services.
The course is designed to be interactive, discussion-oriented and able to be tailored to different classrooms, says Baxter. But the key is to teach mental health literacy like any other subject.
“Until it’s treated like math and reading, it’s not going to be implemented to a point where it’s consistent and sustainable,” he says. “If we treat it as one of the classes that’s just there, that really helps reduce stigma.”
Another goal is to create a “common language” between educators and mental health providers to help foster emotional coping strategies and identify students who may need extra support, says Baxter.
Research shows the curriculum can improve the quality of school referrals to mental health services by giving educators the tools to differentiate emotional tumult from mental illness, he says, allowing young people who need treatment to access it earlier.
Baxter says that could be more relevant as some students may require clinical intervention to deal with difficult feelings about the COVID-19 crisis.
The renewed focus on youth mental health has fuelled interest in the curriculum, Baxter says, and he believes everyone in the school community stands to benefit.
“I don’t know how many students will go on to factor a polynomial, but they will all have a brain,” he says. “If you learn something about your brain, that’s pretty applicable to your life.”
The president of the Canadian School Boards Association says mental health is top of mind for Canadian educators this term. But Laurie French notes teachers are not trained to provide mental health services, saying it will take collaboration between governments, schools and clinicians to support students.
Claire Crooks, director of Western University’s Centre for School Mental Health, says schools are on “the front line” of children’s mental health in Canada, often serving as the first point of contact to help connect kids with the services they need.
Many common mental health challenges first present in childhood or youth, says Crooks, so timely intervention is vital.
“We need to really think about this idea of connection before curriculum,” she says. “Getting youth connected back to school, connected to each other, connected to educators and mental health professionals is really the foundation upon which learning will happen.”