Addressing mental health in the classroom

“Being on the front line with no training is like asking someone to build a house with no tools. It can’t happen.”

So says Ian Manion, who stress teachers need to be prepared to deal with issues of mental health in children. But right now, they are not properly equipped to handle the challenge.

“We’re trying to give teachers the tools they need to do their work,” says the executive director of the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health. “But there is a huge gap and that is in the fundamental training of the teachers. The number of students in need is growing all the time.”

Thanks to a donation from former University of Western Ontario graduate student and elementary teacher Walter M. Lobb, the Faculty of Education begins a crucial step in developing a new mental health program and scholarship fund to address the needs of teachers who deal with students’ mental health issues every day.

“Teachers are on the front lines,” says Western professor Alan Leschied, one of the faculty members co-ordinating the Lobb program. “Schools are amazing places of learning and creativity, but they can also be challenging places that are not fun or supportive. Teachers are at the core of advancing our subsequent generations and this legacy, and what will grow from it, will enable us to help meet the challenge of caring for our young people, our students.

“It will help address the emotional support young people need, yet are too often denied.”

Lobb, a Chatham elementary school teacher for nearly 40 years, left $430,000 to the faculty to develop research, materials and resources to help educators identify and meet the needs of students who have a mental health disorder.

Funds will also assist educators with the personal challenges and stress of dealing with the numerous demands of the modern classroom.

“This will enable our next generation of educators to have what they need to cope with the heavy demands our culture places upon them,” Leschied adds. “We ask of our teachers to not only successfully deliver an often changing curriculum, but to create safe places within which to learn, to be supportive of our young people and to be sensitive to the personal issues and concerns of what it means to grow up.”

Recent surveys indicate as many as 20 per cent of children age 4-17 have clinically important disorders at any given time. This translates to more than 800,000 Canadian children who experience mental health issues.

“This is a remarkable gift that speaks to a critical need in our society,” says Janice Deakin, provost and vice-president academic. “These are challenges that not only limit a student’s potential classroom success, but also challenges that can develop into life threatening situations if not addressed in a timely manner.”

Also introduced was the Walter M. Lobb Ontario Graduate Scholarship award, an honour presented to a Faculty of Education graduate student conducting research focused on children’s mental health.

“We firmly believe that our schools will be central to providing support for our country’s children in an increasingly complex societal context,” says Vicki Schwean, Faculty of Education dean. “This will allow us to fill a great gap in education, and that is addressing mental health issues in our school.”

Manion would love to see such training replicated across the country.

“The real magic of this gift is that it positions Western as a leader in the work that needs to be done,” he says. “We’re only going to solve this through strong leadership and incredible partnership. You can be part of the conversation that is taking place in changing how we work with children, youth and families to better the lives of those who may have mental health concerns.”