You are not alone

A case story and an overview of resources for school mental health

It didn’t happen all at once. It was kind of a gradual thing. But one day I was looking out at my class as they worked on an assignment and my eye caught Riley’s. Just for a second. There was something there…. A quiet plea? A longing? An emptiness? I wasn’t sure. But it got me to thinking, when was the last time I heard Riley speak? For that matter, when was the last time I saw a smile? Riley was always a quiet, reliable student, but a quick check of my mark book showed that last week’s assignment hadn’t been turned in, and there were several unexplained absences in recent weeks. No one thing that I could put my finger on, but taken together it made me wonder—is everything okay?

Educators are not mental health professionals, but they are the eyes, ears, and hearts supporting student mental health and well-being every day at school. Because they work with students daily, they are often the first to notice an emerging mental health problem. And educators are often the first ones that a student will approach with an emotional concern.

I made a point of watching Riley more closely in class. I tried to encourage engagement but my questions and comments were met with polite, curt replies. And there was a heaviness, like every word came with great effort. Yes, it seemed, there was indeed something wrong. Something that was hindering learning and enjoyment, making Riley slowly and quietly withdraw from classroom life. But what was it? And what should I say? What should I do? I wondered, what is my role as an educator in a situation like this?

I decided to check in more regularly with Riley, to see if I could build a bit of a connection, hoping that might open a door to conversation. More curt replies, more polite answers…. But I figured that if I was persistent, and through that persistence conveyed my caring, this might help to build some trust. Every day, I made a point of welcoming Riley to class. Every day, I was sure to make a connection, either about our coursework, or about a current event, or a small anecdote. It didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere, but I kept at it, and started to include a few other students in my check-ins as well. It was interesting, because I noticed a bit of a shift in the class when I took time to do that.

I started to build in some dedicated spaces for dialogue, at the beginning of class and as students were packing up. I also began to share a few strategies with students for coping with stress leading into upcoming assignments and mid-term exams. It surprised me how eager they were to learn about things like deep breathing and chunking assignments. I figured they would know this by now. Maybe they just needed to be reminded, or needed permission, to care for themselves. I guess that is the same for all of us….

In spite of what I was noticing, and the general positive spirit of the class, Riley was still quiet, and still appeared to be struggling. It had been a few weeks since I first noticed, so I decided I needed to do a little research. As a biology teacher, this was new ground for me. We discussed student mental health and mental illness only briefly in my teacher training, and that was many years ago now. Of course, with my background in science, I did understand theoretically about how the brain works, and how brain chemistry and life circumstances can combine to cause problems in mental health. Observing it though, in real time, with one of my students, was another matter entirely.

I went to my board’s staff website, and found that there were actually quite a few good resources to help me out on the topic of mental health. For example, I hadn’t realized that the Ministry of Education had circulated a document called Supporting Minds: An Educator’s Guide to Supporting Students’ Mental Health and Well-being. There is information in this resource about creating a mentally healthy classroom environment, and I was happy to see that some of the strategies that I had intuitively come up with over the past few months, like daily check-ins and reinforcing skills for stress management, were actually on the list of things that can help all students, and especially those who struggle with mental health problems. There was also information about signs of common mental health problems, and how to help.

On the board website, there were also links to related resources. I followed a few of these links and discovered School Mental Health ASSIST (SMH ASSIST). I found that this organization uses Supporting Minds as a knowledge base for professional learning, but that they have created different ways to access the information that were easier for me to explore with the few minutes I had each day to review this. I found a few info sheets on topics that interested me generally, such as anxiety in the classroom, and supporting students after a tragic event, and I also appreciated the online tutorial about mood problems in the classroom. I really liked the videos and reflection questions that were embedded, and appreciated that I could do the whole thing in a half hour, or could work through it a little at a time over several days.

The other thing I discovered in my research was that our board, like every board in Ontario, has a Mental Health Leader who is responsible for our mental health and addictions strategy. I didn’t even know we had a strategy! It was helpful to see that there is a plan, and that our board is committed to enhancing student mental health and well-being. In addition to supporting ongoing learning for our Professional Student Services Personnel (PSSP) members, like school social workers and psychological services staff, I came to learn that our board strategy also includes capacity-building for trustees, system leaders, school administrators and classroom educators. It wasn’t just me trying to learn about this—at every level of our system, we are trying to grow our knowledge. It seemed to me that there was a recognition that this was a significant area of concern, and that it felt new (and a bit scary) for many of us. No one wants to do or say the wrong things. As I read more about this, I came to feel more connected, and less alone, in finding support for Riley.

That got me to thinking that if I was noticing things in my class, maybe some of my colleagues were also seeing the same concerns. So I checked in with Guidance first. Riley’s Guidance teacher indicated that she was making connections with a number of Grade 10 students about their courses and pathways, and would be happy to reach out to Riley for a conversation if that would be helpful. I also checked to see what other classes Riley had and decided to contact the English teacher, whom I had met a few times previously. We chatted briefly and she said that she had noticed similar things but wasn’t sure what to do. She said she would help in any way she could, and I felt like we were building a bit of a circle of caring support around Riley.

I decided that the best next step was to consult with someone who might have a bit more knowledge than me about how to support Riley. I discovered that the school social worker, Mark, would be in the school later in the week and I booked a bit of time with him for a chat. He was awesome! Without even being asked to identify Riley, I was able to describe my concerns and to get his best advice for approaching things in the classroom. He suggested that finding the time and space away from regular class activities to allow for conversation with Riley might help.

So, I decided to invite Riley and a few others from the same class to join my “everyday science” club, which I offer as extracurricular a couple of afternoons a week. To my surprise all four of them accepted my invitation, including Riley. They were a quiet bunch, but slowly they warmed up and within a couple of weeks I could see that they were all—including Riley—enjoying creating experiments with the other students, and working on special projects that they designed. I got the sense that being busy, and completing small things well, without the pressure of marks, helped somehow. I kept Mark in the loop each week and he encouraged me to be patient and persistent in my kindness and everyday support.

A week later, it happened. Riley hesitated in the classroom after the other everyday scientists had packed up and left. I lingered, and waited, shuffling my papers. Riley approached my desk. There was a really long pause as Riley stood, and then sat, next to my desk. I waited, and without speaking, I let Riley know that I was listening. The classroom was quiet, the hallways were empty, distant whistles from the gym told me that the basketball game was still in full swing. We had time. We had space. And Riley began to talk. The words were bumpy and halting, and the pain was just so close behind the words. I listened, I nodded, I echoed back what I heard to show I was understanding and that I cared. I let there be silence, I didn’t try to solve the problems. I told Riley that it was good that the words were out, and that together we would find someone who could help. I thanked Riley for trusting me. And I told Riley about Mark, and how I could help in setting up a meeting with him, and with finding the right words to involve parents and others who care. I told Riley that I would be there to help along the way. That Riley was not alone. And that we would meet tomorrow for everyday scientists and keep learning together. Riley smiled then and I saw, for the first time in a long while, hope in Riley’s eyes.

Most mental health problems begin during adolescence. Educators are well-positioned to notice the early signs of emotional distress. Some common indicators of an emerging mental health problem include:

  • Changes in behaviour or personality
  • Changes in attendance or readiness to learn
  • Difficulty concentrating and completing assignments
  • Appearance of fatigue, low energy, sadness, withdrawal
  • Easily frustrated, irritable, or agitated
  • Expression of intense feelings (fear, anger, moodiness)

When a student experiences changes in behaviour and emotions that last more than two weeks, seem disproportionate to the situation and/or their regular demeanor, and appear to be interfering with classroom functioning, a mental health problem may be emerging.

This is a fictional account, but Riley’s teacher is like so many of our OSSTF/FEESO education professionals—interested, caring, and willing to help. But educators are not mental health professionals and need ongoing support and knowledge in order to play their role in creating mentally healthy classrooms and helping struggling students along the pathway to services when needed. In Ontario, foundations have been established through the work of School Mental Health ASSIST (SMH ASSIST), which is partnering with OSSTF/FEESO and other provincial groups to ensure that educators, school mental health professionals, and other key professionals are equipped with the knowledge, tools, and confidence for this challenging work.

Creating a mentally healthy classroom environment, where students feel welcome, included, and safe helps to create good conditions for learning. It is the little things that educators do every day to help students to create a sense of belonging and competence at school that can make a big difference.

In this case story, the student is experiencing difficulty, but is not showing signs that a crisis response is required. If the educator felt concerned that the student was at imminent risk, because of expressed suicidal thoughts/behaviour or violent intent, more immediate steps would be required. In the case of a mental health emergency, call 911 and do not leave the student alone while waiting for help to arrive. Every board in the province has a suicide prevention and intervention protocol–know and follow your school process for urgent care and referral. You are not alone when supporting a student struggling with intense emotions.

School Mental Health ASSIST is a small team of school mental health professionals, implementation scientists, and system leaders who assist school boards by providing provincial leadership, resources, and ongoing coaching support. The SMH ASSIST team is housed within the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB), but serves every board in the province. At HWDSB, SMH ASSIST is able to learn alongside practicing educators to ensure that resources and supports are useful, feasible and meaningfully enhance knowledge and confidence. At the same time, working provincially with stakeholder organizations to co-design and co-create resources ensures that these supports will resonate with education professionals across Ontario.

Currently, OSSTF/FEESO and SMH ASSIST are working together to produce new resources and opportunities for members’ learning about student mental health, in the full spirit of collaborative professionalism. These resources are designed to be practically-oriented and consistent with the education professional’s role. We look forward to opportunities to jointly offer professional learning sessions about student mental health and to support members’ with tools for ongoing practice. We are also working on the development of mental health literacy programming for students, and on a toolkit of everyday mental health promotion practices for secondary school teachers and educational assistants. Stay tuned!

Learning about student mental health and mental illness is not one-off learning! It’s a complex topic that is new for many educators. Like all professional learning, educators are most likely to benefit from resources and offerings that support iterative, incremental knowledge-building, and have practical tools and strategies that connect to daily classroom life. In Ontario, a suite of mental health literacy offerings have been created with the research on continuous professional development and learning in mind. These resources have been co-created and tailored for different audiences, so that school leaders, mental health professionals, classroom educators, guidance teachers, and other education professionals all receive similar information, nuanced
for their role.

Over the coming year, educators can anticipate a range of professional learning opportunities and student resources to support them in their daily work. If you have ideas, questions, or suggestions, please feel free to contact SMH ASSIST directly at info@smh-assist.ca. It is important that you know that you are not alone in your efforts to support student mental health and well-being at school.

School Mental Health ASSIST works alongside the Ministry of Education as an implementation support team, helping all Ontario school boards to develop and roll out a board mental health and addictions strategy. This organization provides leadership, free resources, face-to-face professional learning opportunities, and a cross-board community of practice for school mental health professionals. Visit our SMH ASSIST website, and follow us @SMHASSIST. Have ideas or suggestions or positive mental health stories? Contact us: info@smh-assist.ca.

School boards across Ontario have a range of mental health services available within the district and community. Not all boards have social work or psychological services staff. As such, referral processes, and pathways to, from, and through services, can vary. It is important to know your school’s pathway, so that you know who to turn to if a student chooses you. You are not a mental health professional and you do not need to carry this alone, you just need to help a struggling student to find their way to help.

Some guidelines for talking with students (from Supporting Minds, p. 24)
It can be difficult to talk with a student who is expressing difficulties with their emotions, thoughts, and behaviour These guidelines can be helpful in setting the stage for a safe conversation that leads towards assisting the student to access natural helpers and professional supports.

  • find an appropriate place to have the conversation, so the student can talk freely in a safe, private setting;
  • start the conversation by explaining that there are limits to what can be kept confidential;
  • offer information about what you have observed in an objective, nonjudgmental way;
  • indicate that you are there to listen and, if the problem feels too big, suggest the possibility of involving someone else who might be better able to help.

Most of the time, the student’s parent/guardian should be engaged and informed right away, with the student’s involvement, so that they can provide ongoing support and help in obtaining professional assistance when needed. In some situations this may not be possible or warranted. Follow your school’s protocols for seeking guidance on particular circumstances.

About Dr. Kathy Short
Dr. Kathy Short is a Clinical Child Psychologist with research and practice interests that focus on school mental health promotion, knowledge mobilization, and implementation science. She is the Director for School Mental Health ASSIST.

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