Professional Advisory - Supporting Students' Mental Health

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Supporting Students’ Mental Health
On November 8, 2018, the Council of the
Ontario College of Teachers approved
this professional advisory.

It is intended to help Ontario Certified Teachers (OCTs) to support
students with mental health concerns and understand how to assist
in their support. This advisory applies to all OCTs, including, but not
limited to, teachers, consultants, principals, vice-principals, supervisory
officers, directors of education and those working in non-school
board positions.

Ontario Certified Teachers (OCTs) support                      or signaling mechanisms (or some combination
students’ mental health. The responsibility                    thereof) [that] help us decide what to do day by
exists in the profession’s ethics and lives in its             day. They are diagnosed using internationally
practices. It resides in the intentions of individual          recognized criteria that lead to significant impair-
practitioners and in the collective duties of a                ments in day-to-day living (work, home, social)”1.
multi-disciplinary team of professionals. It entails
knowing how to recognize and address signs of                  This advisory aims to help OCTs enhance their
mental illness, understanding where to turn for                professional knowledge and practice with
help, and working to avoid stigmatization while                respect to understanding how to support
promoting wellness. The stigmas, ideas, pre-                   students’ mental health.
conceived notions, and understanding of mental
health differs across families and cultures.                   Teachers’ instructional roles enable them to
                                                               observe students closely. They are often the
For the purposes of this advisory, the College has             first to see changes in student behaviour. In the
adopted the Public Health Agency of Canada’s                   scope of their practice as an OCT, educators
definition of positive mental health as “the capacity          cannot diagnose ailments or propose treatment.
of each and all of us to feel, think, and act in ways          Educators can, through awareness, understanding,
that enhance our ability to enjoy life and deal with           experience and initiative, keep learning environ-
the challenges we face.” Mental health encapsu-                ments functional, inclusive, safe and welcoming to
lates one’s ability to manage thoughts, feelings and           enable learning to occur and students to excel.
behaviour, making it possible to set and achieve
goals, create and keep relationships, adapt to and             This advisory will help you to use your professional
cope with stress and sadness, and feel happiness.              judgment to identify and avoid potential risks.

Mental illness is more than feeling stressed                   Realities
or unwell. It is “a disturbance of brain function              The World Health Organization says that mental
characterized by difficulties in thinking, mood,               health disorders will be the world’s leading cause
behaviour, perception, physical functioning and/               of disability by 20302. One in five Canadians – and

    Christina Bartha, Executive Director, SickKids Centre for Community Mental Health, Presentation at 6th Mental Health
    Law for Children & Youth Workshop: Community Collaboration in Children and Youth Mental Health: Cross-Sector
    Approaches and Challenges, “A Tale of Two Partnerships: Opportunities, Challenge and Change”, April 9, 2018

                                                        PROFESSIONAL ADVISORY: SUPPORTING STUDENTS‘ MENTAL HEALTH 1
one in five students – experience a mental health                 Early recognition and intervention is critical for
  illness or concern in any given year.3 “Seventy per               mental health issues for students of all ages.
  cent of mental health problems have their onset                   Many illnesses develop and peak in the inter-
  during childhood or adolescence.”4 “An estimated                  mediate/secondary grades. Thus it is important
  1.2 million children and youth are affected by                    that teachers be able to identify children at risk.9
  mental illness, yet less than 20 per cent receive
  appropriate treatment”.5 Further, “suicide                        Ontario students rate their mental health lower
  accounts for 24 per cent of all deaths among                      than their physical health – with nine per cent
  15-24-year-olds in Canada” and is the second                      indicating fair or poor physical health versus
  leading cause of death among teens.6 Nearly                       19 per cent expressing fair or poor mental
  one-quarter (23.4 per cent) of First Nations                      health.10 Students themselves recognize the
  youth reported psychological distress scores                      growing need for assistance. In “A Turning Point
  which suggested that they were likely to have a                   for Education: The Student Platform”11, the
  moderate to severe mental disorder.7 The lifetime                 Ontario Student Trustees’ Association - l’Asso-
  prevalence of suicide ideation and attempts                       ciation des élèves conseillers et conseillères
  among First Nations youth was 16 per cent and                     de l’Ontario (OSTA-AECO) identified student
  10.3 per cent respectively.8                                      well-being, 21st century learning, and equitable
                                                                    access to opportunities as three pillars of a
  The spectrum of mental illness covers students                    strong education system. OSTA-AECO’s survey
  from all backgrounds and across all grades.                       data said that students wanted to talk to
  Many live with illness. Awareness, sensitivity and                someone about a mental health problem but did
  guidance are vital to helping students learn, grow                not know who to approach. Further, OSTA-AECO
  and adapt regardless of obstacle or need.                         said that student access to supports for well-
                                                                    being varied significantly across the province
  Optimal mental health enables good learning.                      and they recommended mandatory suicide inter-
  That said, everyone, at some point in life,                       vention training for guidance counsellors.
  experiences challenges involving self-esteem,
  interpersonal relationships, confidence, mood                     The Role of Ontario Certified Teachers
  and concentration. These concerns may be                          College members are a recognized support in the
  temporary or lasting, but they should never                       service of students’ mental health. By under-
  go unrecognized.                                                  standing the characteristics of mental health,

       Canadian Mental Health Association; Children’s Mental Health
       Mental Health Commission of Canada
       Canadian Mental Health Association
       First Nations Regional Health Survey, Phase 3, Volume 1, Page 70, March 2018
       First Nations Regional Health Survey, Phase 3, Volume 2, Page 134, July 2018
       Dr. Alice Charach, Presentation at 6th Mental Health Law for Children & Youth Workshop: What’s Trending in Child & Youth
       Mental Health, April 9, 2018
       2017 Mental Health and Well-being Among Ontario Students, CAMH, Ontario Student Drug Use and Health survey
       A Turning Point for Education: The Student Platform, Ontario Student Trustees’ Association - l’Association des élèves
       conseillers et conseillères de l’Ontario, Jan. 10, 2018,

OCTs can help to identify students at risk, seek                   statutes, regulations, school board and employer
help, support them on the path to care, and                        policies, professional workplace standards and
create a learning environment that supports                        common law. OCTs also receive information from
recovery and wellness.                                             the Ministry of Education, education faculties,
                                                                   College-accredited Additional Qualification
Ontario’s Ministry of Education says that “a                       courses and programs, federations, and profes-
positive school climate and a safe learning and                    sional associations. The College specifically
teaching environment are essential if students                     references students’ mental health as an area
are to succeed in school.12 The Education Act13                    of focus in its Accreditation Resource Guide16
requires principals to consider mitigating                         for Ontario’s faculties of education working with
factors when making disciplinary decisions                         teacher candidates.
or taking action.
                                                                   While educators are frequently in a position to
Professional standards                                             observe, they should not attempt to diagnose
The College’s Ethical Standards for the Teaching                   mental health problems. However, they can
Profession14 and the Standards of Practice for                     promote positive mental health, destigmatize
the Teaching Profession15 provide a moral and                      conditions, and help to identify and report
practical framework for this advice. Developed                     students at risk.
by College members and members of the public,
the standards guide and inform the judgment and                    Legal and Disciplinary Considerations
practice of Ontario’s certified teachers. When                     Legal rights, liabilities and requirements involve
educators support students’ mental health,                         a number of competing legal principles set out
they demonstrate the ethical standards of care,                    in a variety of provincial and federal statutes as
trust, respect and integrity. They express their                   well as in common law. These principles address
commitment to students’ mental health and                          issues such as age of consent, right to privacy,
learning through positive influence, professional                  duty of confidentiality, duty to accommodate,
judgment and empathy in practice.                                  workplace safety, duty to report17 suspected
                                                                   child abuse and professional obligations.
Professional responsibilities
The responsibility of OCTs to support students’                    Several acts provide guidance on matters
mental health stems not only from the profes-                      affecting mental health concerns. These include
sion’s ethical and practice standards but from                     but may not be limited to: the Education Act18, the

     Ontario Ministry of Education webpage. “Suspension and Expulsion. What Parents and Students Need to Know.”;;
     Supporting Minds: An Educator’s Guide to Promoting Students’ Mental Health and Well-being, 2013;
     R.S.O 1990, c. E.2
     Child, Youth and Family Services Act, 2017, S.O. 2017, c. 14;
     R.S.O. 1990, c. E.2;

                                                           PROFESSIONAL ADVISORY: SUPPORTING STUDENTS‘ MENTAL HEALTH 3
Human Rights Code19, the Municipal Freedom of                      Characteristics of some mental health
  Information and Protection of Privacy Act20, the                   conditions
  Youth Criminal Justice Act21, and the Occupational                 The impact of mental illness on student learning,
  Health and Safety Act22. Ontario’s Health Care                     emotional health, behaviours and relationships
  Consent Act23 says that students can consent                       manifests in ways beyond struggling to meet
  to their own care if they are capable of making                    learning expectations. Students may abuse
  decisions, understand the information and are                      substances. They may drop out of school. They
  able to appreciate the consequences. With some                     may struggle to make and keep friends or to
  exceptions, everyone is presumed capable. Under                    develop appropriate relationships with adults.
  the Personal Health Information Protection Act24,
  “capable” youth can also decide if information                     Children and youth, however, often demonstrate
  about them can be shared. If a student is deemed                   different moods, thoughts and behaviours as
  incapable, the law requires a substitute decision                  part of normal childhood development. OCTs
  maker be appointed, typically a parent25, guardian                 should pay particular attention to intense behav-
  or the Children’s Aid Society. Teachers should                     iours that persist over long periods, are inappro-
  consult administrators if they are unsure of their                 priate for the student’s age, or that appear to
  legal obligations. OCTs in leadership positions                    interfere with their lives. Excessive or unusual
  are wise to consult with their employers’ legal                    moods might indicate a mental health issue that
  advisors when legal issues arise.                                  requires consultation and intervention.

  Diagnosed mental health illness may also                           “One might think about children’s mental
  amount to an exceptionality where they affect                      health as on a continuum ranging from develop-
  behaviour, communication or intellectual ability.                  mentally normal, through problems that may be
  As such, board Identification, Placement, and                      addressed in the everyday life of the classroom
  Review Committees and school Individual                            and the school, to problems that require expert
  Education Plans for students may come                              assessment and intensive clinical interventions.”26
  into play.
                                                                     Signs for possible concern may include:
  OCTs are reminded of their duty of confidenti-
  ality and to be careful in sharing information of a                •   significant drops in school marks
  sensitive nature about students. Students need                     •   changes to sleeping or eating habits
  to be able to trust that teachers and adminis-                     •   avoiding friends and family
  trators have their best interests at heart.                        •   frequent, angry outbursts

       R.S.O. 1990, c. H.19;
       R.S.O. 1990, c. M.56;
       S.C. 2002, c. 1;
       R.S.O. 1990, c. O.1;
       S.O. 1996, c. 2, Sched. A;
       S.O. 2004, c. 3,
       In this advisory, ‘parent’ means the student’s parent, legally appointed guardian, or any person in a custodial role such
        as adoptive parent, step-parent, or foster parent.
       “The ABCs of Mental Health”;

•     drinking a lot and/or using drugs                       •   be aware of possible barriers to students
•     not doing things they usually like to do                    getting effective help
•     worrying constantly                                     •   consult with your principal or vice-principal
•     frequent mood swings                                        about your concerns
•     obsession or lack of concern about weight/              •   consult with experts such as school board
      appearance                                                  psychologists and social workers, where
•     lacking energy or motivation                                available
•     feeling down                                            •   keep good records and always document.
•     risky behaviour.27
                                                              Supporting Students’ Mental Health:
Behaviours such as cutting, scratching or                     Advice to Members
burning oneself, atypical comments made to                    The measure of mental wellness is being
peers or in school assignments, and appearing                 productive in daily activities, nurturing rela-
emotionally absent are other possible signs.                  tionships, adapting to change, and coping with
                                                              stresses. Ontario Certified Teachers embrace
Disorders may include: anxiety disorders                      a professional ethical responsibility to educate
(phobias, social anxiety, separation anxiety/                 students in safe, caring, accepting, inclusive and
panic), obsessive-compulsive disorders, atten-                equitable environments and which honour their
tion-deficit/hyperactivity disorders (ADHD                    mental wellness, dignity, culture, language and
presenting as predominantly inattentive and/                  heritage. Accordingly, OCTs understand and follow
or hyperactive/impulsive); mood disorders                     government and employer policies, procedures,
(depression, childhood bipolar disorder), and                 protocols and expectations.
eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating).
                                                              Create a supportive learning
What you can do:                                              environment
                                                              Positive classroom environments promote good
•     be aware of traumatic events in a student’s life        mental health, help to prevent problems or
      or in the community, which can trigger change           reoccurrences, and reduce the effects of mental
•     be cognizant of how you talk with students              health issues on students’ ability to learn. Do
      and parents/guardians. Model language that              the culture and structures within your learning
      avoids stigmatizing mental illnesses. For               environments promote students’ mental health?
      example, a student living with bipolar disorder         Can students and staff talk about mental illness
      versus ‘He’s bipolar.’                                  openly in terms that do not promote stigma?
•     notice whether your students have friends,
      how many, who they are (are they age-                   Is there a School Support Team with information
      appropriate?) and how long they’ve had them             and strategies to support identified students or a
•     observe whether they are functioning well               school-based support plan that involves parents,
      in school and managing their work; describe             family doctors, social workers, psychologists or
      the behaviours you see (difficulty sitting still        others? Furthermore, are there opportunities for
      or taking direction)                                    professional development on mental health?

     “Child and Youth Mental Health: Signs and Symptoms”,

                                                      PROFESSIONAL ADVISORY: SUPPORTING STUDENTS‘ MENTAL HEALTH 5
Learn to recognize behaviours of                                  Be sensitive
  concern                                                           Recognize and appreciate that there may be
  Social inclusion, freedom from discrimination,                    community, religious and cultural differences
  and violence and access to economic resources                     that affect student and parent choices regarding
  are key determinants of mental health. Learn to                   mental health illnesses and treatment. Validate
  recognize the characteristics of mental illness                   their feelings and hear their concerns. Speak
  in students and take action. Are there chronic                    simply and succinctly. If necessary, repeat
  health problems, a family history of illness or                   things. Avoid language that creates stigma. Allow
  disorder, or family conflict or intergenerational                 students time to process information and to
  trauma? Has a family doctor been consulted?                       respond. Let them know you’re listening. Most
  When is it appropriate to inform your school’s                    importantly, demonstrate patience, calm and
  health and wellness team and school adminis-                      a willingness to help. In some cases, it may be
  trators about your concerns? Do you know the                      helpful to suggest practices such as yoga, jour-
  factors associated with higher risk of mental                     naling, prayer, cultural ceremonies, volunteering,
  health difficulties? Can you determine what                       exercising or connecting with nature to help
  constitutes a crisis (abuse, self-harm, suicide                   students manage stress.
  attempts, threats to others)?
                                                                    Act professionally
  Intervene appropriately                                           Always maintain a professional relationship
  Approach students with potential mental health                    with students and recognize that each situation
  concerns with sensitivity, empathy and under-                     is different. Respect students’ personal space
  standing. Use positive, accepting language and                    when addressing concerns about behaviour.
  offer positive options. Acknowledge anger, but                    Ensure that they understand what you can and
  don’t accept abusive, offensive language, and                     cannot do in your role. With respect to communi-
  don’t argue. Ask if there’s someone they usually                  cating electronically online and via social media,
  get support from who you can call on their behalf.                act online as you would as a professional in
  If students are at risk of harm, act immedi-                      person.28 Observe, listen, inform and involve
  ately according to your employer’s policies and                   others, but do not counsel unless this is your role
  protocols. Always maintain professional bound-                    and you have the appropriate training. As well, do
  aries when providing support.                                     not disclose confidential information.

  As required, inform and involve colleagues,                       Beware of over-care or over-stepping bound-
  parents, and other para-professionals. Other                      aries. For example, be aware that some students
  regulated professionals who may be essential in                   can misconstrue help as intimacy. Consult your
  the care and delivery of programs and services                    principal or vice-principal frequently.
  may include audiologists, speech-language
  pathologists, occupational therapists, physio-                    Professionals also practise self-care. Recognize
  therapists, psychologists, psychological asso-                    your stressors and know the resources that are
  ciates, and social workers. Whenever possible,                    available to you.
  collaborate with other partners such as elders,
  knowledge keepers, Indigenous organizations or
  members of a faith community.

       Professional Advisory: Use of Electronic Communication and Social Media, Ontario College of Teachers, Sept. 27, 2017;

A self-reflective framework to support students’
mental health

Reflect                                               3. Does the student have/need an Individual
Ask yourself:                                            Education Plan or safety plan (including
                                                         such things as triggers, warning signs,
1. What do I know about mental health and                coping strategies, support network, crisis
    mental illness?                                      plan and resources)?
2. What are my personal thoughts and                  4. Are students self-injuring, at risk of
    biases?                                              suicide, or at risk of harming others?
3. Do I use language that is respectful and
    non-stigmatizing?                                 Intervene and Support
4. Am I part of a school-wide approach to             Ask yourself:
    promote mental health? Is there an under-
    lying philosophy of respect? Are expecta-         1. Have I created an environment in which
    tions clear? Are routines predictable?                students feel safe, valued, engaged and
5. What is my support network? Who can I                  purposeful?
    talk with about my concerns at my school?         2. What does this student need to succeed?
6. Do I know what professional development            3. Are students engaged in their own
    I need to support students’ mental health             diagnosis and treatment/care?
    and where to access it?                           4. Do I help to remove the stigmas around
7. Do I know what my employer’s policy is                 mental health and make it easy for
    with respect to getting help?                         students to approach me or acquire the
8. Do I know the school’s mental health lead              information they need?
    and/or mental health counselor and how to         5. Have I created a positive learning
    contact them?                                         environment that encourages caring,
9. Who else on staff has information that can             respect, and acceptance and recognizes
    be shared?                                            religious and cultural differences?
10. Do I model a positive outlook, understanding      6. Do I look for opportunities to promote
    and acceptance of others’ feelings, self-             mental health within the curriculum?
    regulation of my emotions, and constructive       7. How can I develop and implement instruc-
    conflict resolution?                                  tional practices that better serve the
11. Do my students enjoy learning and take an             learning needs of students with mental
    interest in school activities?                        health issues?
                                                      8. In providing support, am I mindful of the
Detect                                                    need to maintain professional boundaries?
Ask yourself:                                         9. How do I support students who feel
                                                          ashamed or stigmatized?
1. Am I aware of the early signs of possible          10. Do I know what to do and who to contact
   mental health concerns, mental illness or              if a student discloses suicidal actions or
   substance abuse?                                       thoughts?
2. Is there an identifiable continuum of care
   for students?

                                                PROFESSIONAL ADVISORY: SUPPORTING STUDENTS‘ MENTAL HEALTH 7
Report                                                       Centre for Addiction and Mental Health [CAMH]
  Ask yourself:                                      

  1. Have I informed my students about the                     Children’s Mental Health Ontario [CMHO]
     school’s confidentiality policies and my        
     duty to report?
  2. Do I know who to report to and what to                    Canadian Mental Health Association [CMHA]
  3. Do I know who to report to in an emergency
     (threats of violence or suicide)?                         Ontario Mental Health Association [CMHA-
  4. Do I collaborate with parents, medical                    Ontario]
     professionals and other community               
     members as needed?
  5. Do I keep my communication with parents                   Mental Health Commission of Canada
     and students professional, culturally           
     appropriate and open?
                                                               Sick Kids’ Hospital, Centre for Brain and Mental
  In conclusion                                                Health
  The daily actions of teachers and their positive   
  relationships with their students actively
  promote the mental health of students.29 It’s                Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario [CHEO]
  important that OCTs role model for others by       
  maintaining their own wellness.
                                                               School Mental Health – ASSIST
  Your personal knowledge is valuable, but never     
  as powerful as when it’s combined with the
  knowledge of your professional peers. Your                   EdCan Network
  commitment to learning about and addressing        
  mental health issues is the best way to
  support students.                                            EDU
  Apply your professional judgment. If you are
  unsure whether an action is appropriate and you    
  have a concern, report to your supervisor.         

  Consider consulting the following agencies for
  additional information:

  Aboriginal Health Access Centres

       The ABCs of Mental Health. “Mental Health for All Children and Youth”

For additional information:
                                                                         Ontario College of Teachers
                                                                         101 Bloor Street West
                                                                         Toronto ON M5S 0A1

                                                                         Telephone: 416-961-8800
                                                                         Fax: 416-961-8822
                                                                         Toll-free in Ontario: 1-888-534-2222
Cette publication est également disponible en français sous le titre
Recommandation professionnelle : Favoriser la santé mentale des élèves
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