Normalizing Mental Health Talks with Students


The discussion of mental health is thankfully more prevalent today than ever. On a regular basis we hear uplifting stories from everyday people to celebrities about how they deal positively and proudly with their mental health challenges. These testimonials normalize the topic and can help encourage others, particularly young people, to do the same. That’s the good news.

Talking about mental health with children and youth is difficult for many Canadians. They do not know what to say or are worried about saying something “wrong.” Some fear they won’t know how to react when someone shares their mental health story.

The prevalence of mental illness among youth puts educators in a unique position compared to other professionals. The Public Health Agency of Canada reports that 70 percent of mental health problems are onset during childhood or adolescence. And a 2017 survey commissioned by Children’s Mental Health Ontario revealed that a third of Ontario parents have had a child miss school due to anxiety.

It is not hard to see that teachers are discovering that they’re being engaged—or want to engage—in conversations about mental health with children and their parents.

Jill Dennison of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Hamilton Branch has extensive experience working with schools and educators. She advises teachers who may be nervous about discussing mental health to take the pressure off. “Teachers are on the front line with our youth and see and hear things many of us, including parents, do not,” says Dennison, a mental health promotion and resilience facilitator. “But teachers aren’t doctors, psychiatrists or social workers and they shouldn’t feel the need to fill those roles.” When it comes to speaking with young people, Dennison suggests taking the focus off serious mental illnesses. Instead, frame the discussion under simple terms they can understand. “I tell kids that everyone who has a brain has mental health. For children, it’s about getting them to talk about feelings and emotions rather than complex topics like depression or anxiety.”

Engaging in regular discussions with children and teens about their emotions and feelings—their mental health, in other words—makes the topic less stigmatizing and more normal for youth.

Dennison recommends incorporating mental health discussions and activities in the classroom at regular intervals during the academic year, not just as one-off experiences to mark commemorative days or weeks. For example, mindfulness, yoga or other deep breathing exercises are a good way to start the day and get kids in the right frame of mind to maintain positive mental health.

Also helpful is ensuring that the classroom is an open, safe and judgment-free space for children, teens and educators to connect about mental health and emotional issues.

“Implementing activities from the start until the end of the school year increases the success rate of encouraging young people to make mental health a part of their everyday lives,” Dennison says. “Collectively, we should aim to make the inclusion of mental health information a constant throughout a child’s scholastic career, not just as a brief component in their physical education class.”

There are several online resources for educators looking for more information about mental health or mental illness. Useful online sources include: is a mental health resource exclusively dedicated to educators that is supported by Teachers Life, a not-for-profit insurance company. It includes articles and interactive surveys that help educators identify their own mental health needs, and that of their students. Mental Health Commission of Canada develops programs and tools to support the mental health and wellness of Canadians. The website includes training materials and tools aimed to increase mental health literacy and improve the mental well-being of people in Canada. Mood Disorders Society of Canada is a mental health NGO that creates and maintains partnerships with public, private and non-profit sectors in Canada. The website offers a variety of sources from white papers to call to actions to support awareness campaigns. Centre for Suicide Prevention is a branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association. Several sources are available to help Canadians identify and deal with suicide including webinars, research studies and articles.

Teachers on Target, a section on offers self-care activities and tips that can help stave off burnout and manage stress.

Dennison agrees that self-care is vital for educators. “It seems obvious that if teachers are feeling overwhelmed, stressed, burnt out or under-appreciated, then it will show up in the classroom,” she says. “We need to pay attention to those factors and try to enhance resilience. After all, mental health should be top of mind for everyone. From administration on down to full- and part-time teachers and educational assistants. Everyone’s mental health needs to be acknowledged and supported.”


Joe Kim
Joe Kim is a Director of Communications, CMHA.

This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Fall 2018 issue.

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