Western researchers are expanding successful education programs to help vulnerable young people build strong relationships and prevent violence.
The Healthy Relationships program developed by Western’s Centre for School Mental Health (CSMH) of the Faculty of Education equips youth to work through questions and stressors that, when left unmanaged, can contribute to mental health challenges down the road. Aided with new funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada, the program will now expand its focus supporting rainbow and Indigenous teens.
It is modelled in part on the popular Western-developed Fourth R program that’s already in use in thousands of schools, with the latest $5 million grant to scale up that program ending this fall. New federal grants totaling more than $652,000 over the next two years will tailor the expanded program to additional 2SLGBTQIA+ (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer or questioning, intersex, asexual and other identities) youth in school boards around Ontario and Indigenous young people on Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation in Alberta.
Western’s CSMH is building, implementing and evaluating a bevy of programs to empower students with the coping and communication skills they need to boost mental well-being.
“Schools are the de facto frontlines for children’s mental health in Canada. Most kids who need services don’t get them, and if they get them, it is only at school,” Claire Crooks, who heads the centre, said.
“We know that schools can be a safer space. A good GSA – gender sexuality alliance – can have a really positive effect on youths’ well-being.”
Going one step further – introducing healthy relationship programming to GSAs, for example – can be a valuable intervention. Youths already want to attend and often there is a trusted adult there, so it’s the perfect place to boost skills and set a foundation to prevent mental health crises, Crooks said.
“These student-led, extracurricular groups are still rebounding and rebuilding in schools after the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Alicia Lapointe, adjunct research professor of education and research scientist at CSMH.
“Our goal is to enhance the positive effects of group participation by introducing structured mental health promotion and healthy relationships programming in GSAs.”
The program, which Lapointe helped develop, has already been shown to build “social capital,” including friendships and even offers of safety for 2SlGBTQIA+ young people struggling at home.
“When we facilitated youth focus groups, participants shared that they enjoyed the program, found it relevant, and benefited from the skills they learned and the connections they made with their peers. Students also shared that the program helped them explore and affirm interlocking identities and ways of being,” Lapointe said.
The “equity-infused” program is a particularly crucial support for youth in challenging situations, such as 2SLGBTQIA+ young people, Indigenous youth, or those in the foster-care or juvenile justice systems.
The reality is sobering: There is a crisis in children’s mental health, and the pandemic made it worse, Crooks said. But she also believes there are reasons to be hopeful.
Programs created or used by the CSMH help with prevention, equipping young people with the tools they need before major mental health issues strike. Those interventions can keep kids and teens from ending up on long waitlists for clinical services, especially when they are designed to be culturally relevant, part of the work that Indigenous projects manager Andrea Delaney undertakes at CSMH.
“We absolutely can’t have a treatment-only model. We don’t have enough social workers and psychologists, there’s a lot of barriers to service for people, and if you do that approach it means, by definition, you’re waiting for an emergency,” Crooks said.
The same benefits apply to other efforts from the CSMH, like training for future teachers to navigate social-emotional issues in the classroom and support their own mental health, or the STRONG (Supporting Transition Resilience of Newcomer Groups) program to help immigrant or refugee children manage the stress and emotional turbulence of their experiences.
Early evidence suggests STRONG boosts coping strategies, connectedness and resilience. Crooks travelled to the Czech Republic last fall to teach social workers and other professionals how to deploy the training for Ukrainian children forced to flee their homes because of Russia’s invasion.
A four-year grant from the Public Health Agency of Canada will fund more rigorous study of that intervention, already used across Ontario school boards, in 2023.
“Only intervening when kids are really desperate or families are at the end of the rope is a silly model; there’s so many things we can do upstream,” Crooks, who’s also a mom of four, said.
“Schools have so many advantages; it’s where kids are (and) you have all these adults with relationships with the children. So school mental health is about helping every adult in the school system understand their role and have the tools for the job,” she said.