How often, as a teacher, have you encountered a student who you think may be experiencing a mental health problem or illness? I can tell you that, as the newly appointed board chair for the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), I can’t help but be shocked each time I see a new statistic about the mental health needs of today’s young people.
Did you know, for example, that upwards of 75% of mental health problems and illnesses begin between the ages of 16 and 25? Or that 40% of parents say they wouldn’t tell anyone—not even their family doctor—if their child was experiencing a mental health problem? Such figures tell us that the stigma and shame of our own generation, and of our parents before us, are causing untold harm to our children and grandchildren.
I didn’t set out to be a mental health advocate, but my interest initially grew as I learned about psychological health and safety in the workplace. Being the father of a young teenager and the husband of a teacher, I also began listening to dinner table conversations with an ear attuned to the mental health implications of my wife’s and daughter’s daily challenges.
It soon became clear to me that if we want a generational shift that ushers in early intervention for mental health problems—the best predictor of better outcomes—we need to cultivate mental health champions in our schools, because just as working adults spend most of their waking hours on the job, students spend a great deal of time at school. That’s where the MHCC’s game-changing HEADSTRONG summits come in. These student-driven, evidence-based events have attracted participants from over 900 high schools since the program’s inception in 2015 and are taking the nation by storm. Young people arrive as high school students, but after a day of learning, listening, and creating their own action plans, they leave as mental health champions.
HEADSTRONG’s motto—Be brave, Reach out, Speak up—is resonating with young people across the country. A big part of its winning recipe is the contribution of speakers who have lived experience of a mental health problem or illness. HEADSTRONG harnesses the power of recovery from mental illness, turning something that may have once been shameful into an extraordinary testament to resilience and strength. Contact-based anti-stigma education is at the core of every summit. The small but indomitable team of MHCC’s HEADSTRONG coordinators seeks out young adults to share their stories among peers. The resulting bridge of understanding spurs conversations about how to break down barriers to seeking treatment, how to better support a friend, and where and when to get help.
Following the summits, students return to their schools motivated to spearhead creative activities that ultimately lead to long-term stigma reduction. The approaches students take in their action plans are as diverse as the school communities themselves. As one example, HEADSTRONG is resonating particularly well with Indigenous communities: nearly 40% of the work is now with First Nations and Métis students. In Kainai Nation, Alberta, students created a wellness room in their high school, which reflects and celebrates Blackfoot culture and heritage, and hosts an Elders-in-residence program to offer guidance and support.
The beauty of HEADSTRONG is its simplicity. It’s adaptable, portable, and cost-effective. The young people themselves hold the solutions to so many of the challenges they face. They understand, better than I ever could, what it’s like growing up in a world saturated with social media and facing unprecedented student debt after graduating from college or university. These students come to HEADSTRONG, and we hold up a mirror that allows them to see their own bravery, intelligence, and enthusiasm. Our job, as a national commission, is simply to help them channel that energy into actions that improve the mental health culture at their schools.
From Vancouver Island to my hometown of St. John’s, HEADSTRONG is improving the rates of help-seeking behaviour by more than 300%. When students leave these events, 95% say they feel better equipped to help a friend or seek help themselves.
That is huge in light of the statistic I mentioned earlier: that 40% of parents refuse to openly acknowledge their child’s mental health problem. The MHCC saw an opportunity to create a space to open up dialogue and tear down stigma, and the reaction we’ve seen from young people tells us we’ve gotten it right.
As teachers, you’ve got one of the hardest, but also one of the most rewarding, jobs in the world. I say this from experience. I see the worry on my wife’s face when she’s trying to walk a fine line between helping a student and maintaining her professional objectivity. I hear the delight in my daughter’s voice when she’s attended a class with a thoughtful and engaged teacher who is bolstering her self-esteem.
I urge you to visit the MHCC’s website to learn more about HEADSTRONG. The funding is largely derived from modest private donations and, in some cases, provincial dollars. Alberta is the country’s front-runner and held a provincial summit in June 2018 with 150 young people and over 400 school board trustees.
As I write, we’ve reached nearly half a million students, when you factor in the program’s total reach (direct for participants and indirect through their action plans). Summits are doubling year over year, and the sky’s the limit when it comes to harnessing the potential of our country’s bright young minds.
At the MHCC, we believe that if you build it, they will come. As teachers, you can open the door to HEADSTRONG in your schools, and we urge you to join us in this effort.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chuck Bruce is the board chair for the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Fall 2019 issue.