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Identity-affirming school mental health: a frame for reflection and action

School mental health done well is identity affirming.

Video opens with text on screen:

At the centre of Ontario’s school mental health strategy is every student and their unique strengths, identities, needs and natural supports.

A graphic of the strategy unfolds:

The graphic starts with a circle. The very centre says every student.

A ring around the centre circle says differentiated and identity-affirming supports.

The next ring out has the words dismantle, engage, amplify and respond.

The next ring is broken into equal sections for the multi-tiered system of support. There are five sections for Tier 1, two sections for Tier 2 and one section for Tier 3.

Tier one includes:

Parent, caregiver, and community connections and support

System, school, classroom mental health leadership

Strength-based mental health promotion

Mental health literacy and stigma reduction

Student leadership, participation and agency

Tier 2 includes:

Early identification and student support

Prevention and early intervention

Tier 3 includes:

Intensive supports and service pathways

The outside frame says mentally healthy learning environments, teaching and learning, student engagement and allyship, partnerships and services.

The centre of the circle that says every student then expands to take over the screen and is replaced by a series of diverse student photos, each appearing one at a time.

The circle then changes back to the words every student and shrinks. Text appears:

Differentiated and identity-affirming supports wrap around every student across the tiers of intervention.

But how? The Identity-Affirming School Mental Health Frame offers guidance related to places for reflection and action.

The screen changes to show a graphic with the title The Identity-Affirming School Mental Health Frame.

The graphic is a circle or wheel. The very centre says every student.

A ring around the centre circle says differentiated and identity-affirming supports.

The next ring out has the words dismantle, engage, amplify and respond. Each section opens one at a time starting on the bottom left:

Respond with differentiated and Identity affirming mental health supports

Then the top right:

Engage and partner with students, parents/caregivers and community

Then the bottom right:

Amplify diverse student, parent/caregiver and community perspectives & promising practices in school mental health

Then the top left:

Dismantle and remove anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism in school mental health

The graphic disappears and words appear:

School mental health done well is rooted in anti-oppressive practice

School mental health done well is rooted in cultural humility

School mental health done well is rooted in decentring whiteness

School mental health done well is rooted in recentring Black and Indigenous perspectives

Those words transition to say:

School mental health done well is identity affirming.

The video ends as the screen becomes a purple, blue and green gradient and the School Mental Health Ontario logo appears in white in the very centre.


Schools are well placed to work alongside the community and healthcare settings to support the unique mental health needs of every student in Ontario. The system of care varies across the province based on local needs, strengths and available resources. In Ontario, the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified existing disparities and disproportionalities related to mental health supports inside and outside of school. In response, the multi-tiered system of mental health support in schools needs to be applied in an agile manner, centring the needs of those most marginalized and oppressed historically and presently, especially Indigenous and Black students.

The need for this fundamental change in school mental health has been with us a long time, but the crises of inequity and injustice that has dominated the past couple years have reinforced the urgency of taking this on directly and immediately. The path to school mental health begins with explicit individual and collective commitments to Reconciliation and equity and is rooted in anti-oppressive practice (AOP), cultural humility, and decentring whiteness while recentring Black, Indigenous and marginalized perspectives.  It is important to understand that the historical and ongoing colonialism faced by Indigenous Peoples is unique and separate from the oppression faced by other equity-denied groups. Although the journeys to and from may be different, there are commonalities in the inequities faced and efforts towards Reconciliation can inform the work of equity in school mental health. This work will be done well when equity and Reconciliation are united efforts, forged forward separately but alongside towards identity-affirming school mental health for every student.

At an individual level, identity-affirming school mental health places the student, with their unique and intersecting identities, at the centre of mental health support at school. It means recognizing and building upon individual, cultural and community strengths and adapting or accentuating mental health programming and services to best meet each student’s identified needs. An identity-affirming school mental health approach emphasizes the importance of every staff member (no matter what role they have in their school, community or board), critically reflecting on their practice, exploring and understanding their identities and how who they are impacts the work they do and the relationships they have. A key reflective practice in identity-affirming school mental health is centred around the concept of cultural humility. When each individual supporting students knows themselves well, there is greater opportunity to build meaningful connections with students.

At a system level, identity-affirming school mental health means working to ensure that service delivery across the tiers of intervention (mental health promotion, prevention, early intervention, and intensive treatment) includes an assessment of student needs within the local board/school context. Working with students, families/caregivers and the community will help make sure resources and services meet the identified needs in ways that are affirming and responsive. Working alongside board equity leads and community partners, mental health leadership teams have an important role to play in supporting every educator, student support staff member, and school clinician to adopt an identity-affirming school mental health approach as we strive to promote student wellness.

In addition, mental health leadership teams can advance identity-affirming school mental health in several other ways. A review of existing practices, protocols, and programming from an identity-affirming perspective can be helpful. There may be existing approaches that serve every student well which can be amplified, there may be practices or protocols that need to be adapted or differentiated to yield optimal benefits for students who are racialized and/or marginalized, and/or there may be programming that should be replaced with more current, identity-affirming approaches over time. By engaging in this process of review, mental health leadership teams acknowledge that there are many ways of knowing and growing.  The best of practices from years of evidence-based practice and practice-based evidence can be jointly held and honoured.

This work is a critical part of ensuring equity of access and outcomes in mental health for those who experience disproportionalities and disparities because of factors related to the wider social determinants of health (e.g., race, ability, sexual orientation, income, etc.). That is, those with socially constructed lower-status identities disproportionally experience poor mental health and well-being and require a fair (equitable) and intentional anti-oppressive approach to supporting mental health, that counteracts historic and current unequal treatment, systemic barriers, colonial legacies, and affirms their identity.

To address oppression and marginalization, different and varied approaches (differentiated approaches) to supporting student mental health and well-being are necessary for every student, and specifically for those whose identities have been marginalized and oppressed, so that every student can experience positive mental health and well-being.

There is considerable concern about historic and present structural racism and oppression within Canadian society. Collectively, there’s a strong and urgent desire to “do better” within Ontario schools through a strong focus on reconciliation, equity, identity, culture, and human rights. There is excellent work underway in many Ontario school boards in this regard. Within this broader effort, there are clear connections with student mental health. Identity and mental health are inextricably linked. When identities are affirmed and celebrated, when young people feel a sense of belonging, purpose, meaning and hope, they are likely to feel a strong sense of positive mental health, well-being and connection. In contrast, when their intersecting identities are ignored, excluded or misunderstood, or when they experience racism or oppression in its many forms, students can suffer emotionally and have to work much harder than others to gain a sense of wellness.

We know that mental health leadership teams are working hard, alongside equity and culture leads, students, parents/caregivers and community partners to provide identity-affirming school mental health supports and services. Part of this involves a process of reflection, recognizing that the legacy of colonization, enslavement, institutionalized racism, discrimination, and the resulting trauma has produced disparities in educational, mental health, and life outcomes for many, especially Black and Indigenous students.

By taking the time to reflect on the past and how it continues to impact our present, we can move towards actioning a future for mental health service delivery that does not continue patterns of oppression that disproportionally impact marginalized and racialized identities, and also honours diverse ways of supporting student wellness.   The Identity-Affirming School Mental Health Frame begins with reflection and taking time to understand colonial legacies as they exist within the context of your own practice, board and community.  This may also include mapping the community/cultural connections and resources that exist to support identity-affirming school mental health. This frame also includes a focus on action, on first steps that could be taken so we can move past blame, shame, and guilt and towards sustained systemic change.

Identity-affirming school mental health approaches and supports are responsive to individual student needs and affirm intersecting and developing identities. This approach contributes to and benefits from the wider efforts in school boards and schools to address oppression and marginalization, and to work towards reconciliation, equity and justice, especially for those historically and presently oppressed. Moving from current practice to an embedded and integrated identity-affirming school mental health approach takes time, reflection, and planful action.

The goal of the Identity-Affirming School Mental Health Frame is to help guide mental health leadership teams as you thoughtfully reflect and plan resources and supports in your respective communities that meet the unique needs of every student you serve.

Recognizing ideological perspectives and colonial practices that negatively impact students’ right to agency over their mental health and well-being is the first step to sustaining the creation of accessible, responsive, differentiated and identity-affirming approaches and practices. In school mental health, this process begins with acknowledging and decentring and the colonial legacies that are embedded in school mental health practice. When we challenge our assumptions and reflect on what we think we know from past learning, it not only makes us better people/professionals, it also opens up possibilities for including other ways of knowing that may better serve historically and presently marginalized and oppressed students, and particularly those who identify as Black and/or Indigenous. A key reflective practice in is exploring cultural humility.

The intentional act of decentring whiteness is about assuming personal responsibility for acknowledging and reflecting on feelings of guilt, shame, complicity, and superiority. Acting from this awareness is imperative as it decreases discrimination, harm, and the perpetuation of oppression. The continuous practice of decentring whiteness allows those who engage in school mental health to critically analyze whiteness as default, and as a strategy to preserve and perpetuate colonial mentalities that harm marginalized identities, as well as those whom it overtly benefits. More importantly, it rightfully re-positions Black and Indigenous identities at the forefront of needed transformation towards an identity-affirming school mental health approach.

In order to dismantle oppressive systems and rebuild just ones, we are encouraged to understand the ways in which inequality manifests, how it is maintained, and its effect on the mental health and well-being of students who are racialized and marginalized. Engaging in and exploring diverse ways of knowing and being will help us develop a deeper understanding of how inequalities are connected to identities and is central to dismantling racism and oppression in school mental health. Black and Indigenous experiences are inherently woven into the struggles and inequities experienced by other marginalized and oppressed identities. When we put the voices and perspectives of those most marginalized and oppressed at the centre of our work to advance well-being, we are taking collective action for a better future for every student. By explicitly supporting Black and Indigenous students’ mental health and well-being we will inevitably gain knowledge and understanding to inform our actions in support of other marginalized and oppressed identities, such as racialized, 2S/LGBTQIA+, newcomer, and neurodiverse students, among others

The Identity-Affirming School Mental Health Frame has been developed with guidance from a variety of key stakeholders who work in the publicly funded education system in Ontario. Students, educators and school mental health professionals with varying levels of responsibility and perspectives from across Ontario collaborated and offered guidance to help Ontario school boards reflect and take action toward identity-affirming school mental health. School Mental Health Ontario combined guidance from the field with information from our student engagements, board scan data, and other regional mental health leadership consultations and engagements to build the frame.

The Identity-Affirming School Mental Health Frame is also theoretically grounded by three frameworks. As the centre of School Mental Health Ontario’s strategic plan, the frame is supported by Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). This theory considers the interrelationship among people and structures across multiple levels in school mental health. In addition, implementation science (Eccles and Mittman, 2006) provides a reference point for the Identity-Affirming School Mental Health Frame’s focus on promoting and supporting systematic uptake in the school board setting. Lastly, and most importantly, the Identity-Affirming School Mental Health Frame is grounded in anti-oppressive theory (Dominelli, 1996), with a focus on eliminating all forms of oppression that are anchored in structural inequities within school mental health.

While many inputs, engagements, conversations, and meetings helped to form the basis for the Identity-affirming School Mental Health Frame, we want to specifically acknowledge the consultation and input from the planning and consultation group members listed below for sharing their time, perspective and guidance in the spirit of collaboration with members of the SMH-ON team.

  • Carley Kiiskila (Conseil scolaire de district catholique des Aurores boréales)
  • Cassandra Nyimbili (Niagara Catholic DSB)
  • Showbiga Buvanendran (Toronto DSB)
  • Yousra Lakhani(Toronto DSB)
  • Allison Ebanks (Durham DSB)
  • Ananya Roy (Toronto DSB)
  • Eleanor McIntosh (Durham DSB)
  • Geer Harvey (Upper Grand DSB)
  • Jane Lower (Keewatin-Patricia DSB)
  • Laura Conboy (Limestone DSB)
  • Liana Thompson (Grand Erie DSB)
  • Lisa Jeffers (Durham Catholic DSB)
  • Mahin Aman (Peel DSB)
  • Patricia Marra-Stapleton (York Region DSB)
  • Rasha Balche (Halton DSB)
  • Sue Devlin (Kenora Catholic DSB)
  • Yasmin Smith (Waterloo Catholic DSB)

Identity-Affirming School Mental Health Frame

Identity-Affirming School Mental Health Frame, see descriptions below.

The very centre says every student.  A ring around the centre circle says differentiated and identity-affirming supports.

The next ring out has the words dismantle, engage, amplify and respond.  Each word expands out to a box with a definition:   Dismantle and remove anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism in school mental health

Engage and partner with students, parents/caregivers and community  Respond with differentiated and identity-affirming mental health supports  Amplify diverse student, parent/caregiver and community perspectives and promising practices in school mental health

As is also reflected in the School Mental Health Ontario Strategy for 2022-2025, all supports and services wrap around Every Student, depicted at the centre of the graphic. Most immediately, this means ensuring differentiated and supports and services across the tiers of intervention. But how? The frame offers some guidance related to places for reflection, and action.

Dismantle and remove anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism in school mental health

Dismantling systems that perpetuate racism and oppression begins with naming and acknowledging white supremist, colonial, heteronormative ideology that is part of society, and our schools. Much of how we work and learn in schools has been constructed using white cisgender ableist norms as default. This has marginalized many students and families who are underrepresented in decision-making and daily practices, which has significant impacts on sense of identity, belonging, and mental health.

In this work, it is important to recognize all forms of oppressed identities, while acknowledging the distinct and complex history of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism that continues to harm Black and Indigenous students. Boards and schools are reflecting deeply about this and considering and acting upon ways to dismantle structures and processes that are harmful and rebuild just ones.

In addition, board and school staff are engaging in learning and unlearning, so that they can be sure to adopt an anti-oppressive, anti-racist stance in their daily practice. Knowing our positionality and privileges, and the history that has allowed an unjust and inequitable system to prevail, is part of helping to dismantle this and to build schools, and a society, that centres human rights and justice.

In addition to supporting individual and collective learning, mental health leadership teams can challenge one another with reflective questioning. This learning, unlearning, and questioning work is critical for setting the conditions for effective practices across the multi-tiered system of support in school mental health.


Engage and partner with students, parents/caregivers and community

Students want to be part of the conversation about school mental health, and their perspectives are imperative to advance differentiated identity-affirming school mental health practices and supports.

One of the key findings from #HearNowON was a strong interest amongst participants in , culture and mental health was recognized and addressed. It’s important that we offer students ongoing platforms for voice and leadership in this area, with an understanding of the importance of representation and engaging diverse student voices.

This is especially important after months of restricted access to places for gathering and sharing their perspectives and experiences due to pandemic restrictions. Many school boards have developed student mental health leadership groups that can be supported in this work by adult allies.

Families and caregivers know their children best. They are their child’s first teachers and through their family and community, young people begin to establish their identity and to know their strengths and needs. Wrapping around every student is a community that may be defined in many different ways – wider family, culture, faith, geography, language, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

Community groups and organizations have developed ways of mutual support and known practice that serve one another well. Schools can provide identity-affirming approaches to supporting mental health best when they work with families/caregivers and community as equal partners in designing and delivering programming across the multi-tiered system of support.


Amplify diverse student, parent/caregiver and community perspectives and promising practices in school mental health 

Young people, parents/caregivers, and communities have an important voice and many ideas and practices on how to support their mental health and well-being. Creating space, and sharing power allows for deep collaboration and for important perspectives to rise. For example, when we support at school, we can further amplify voices of those who have been oppressed and marginalized and may not have felt confident sharing their views in the past.

When we listen to parent/caregiver concerns, and honour their expertise around their children’s well-being, we can work together to find better ways forward and are inviting new relationships that facilitate healthy home-school communication more generally. Similarly, when we take time to listen and learn about practices in community spaces that help to build self-love, culture, belonging, and relationship, we can work together with our partners to bring these ideas to the school setting, amplifying their good work (being careful not to appropriate the practices, but instead offering a way for cultural / community practitioners to share their leadership). Creating space facilitates agency, wellness, and hope.


Respond with differentiated and Identity-affirming mental health supports 

Most school mental health approaches and supports used in North America were developed and tested from western, white perspectives. Few have been created with and informed by the various lived experiences of students and their and developing identities. For students to have the ability and resources to care for their mental health, they need access to school mental health services across the multi-tiered system of support that are affirming, supportive, meaningful, and reflect their realities. School Mental Health Ontario is actively working with community/cultural partners to add to the suite of protocols and programming across the tiers of intervention and is also providing tools to support use of evidence-informed protocols in an manner.



An affinity group is an intentionally designated space where everyone in that group shares a particular identity. This identity can be based on race, gender, sexual orientation, language, nationality, physical/mental ability, socio-economic class, family structure, religion, etc. Affinity groups can be a place for underrepresented students or staff to come together to feel less isolated and more connected. Student or staff affinity groups allow participants who share identities—usually marginalized identities—to gather and talk in a supportive space about issues related to that identity and transfer that discussion into action that makes for a more equitable experience at school.

Making Space | Learning for Justice 

Intentionally centring students by making meaningful connections to students’ identity and lived experience, that addresses and helps remove (systemic or any) barriers to student well-being. Cultural responsivity in practice is about being aware of students’ identity and lived experiences and how your identity intersects and interacts with theirs, as you work together towards building meaningful connections in your shared experiences at school.

Decentring whiteness is a process of moving whiteness from the centre of society while at the same time centring diverse perspectives. This intentional action requires naming the ways in which whiteness is centred by continuously interrogating and challenging existing structures, processes, and practices, while using our power, influence, and privilege to amplify diverse ways of knowing and being. Without intentional action to centre historically and presently marginalized perspectives, whiteness will continue to occupy the centre. Centring the diversity of ways of knowing and being will enrich our learning environments and school mental health practices to help affirm every student’s identities – especially those who have been historically, and are currently, marginalized and oppressed.

Identity affirmation is the process of building positive connections to identities someone has. Identity-affirming practice and environments prioritize anti-racist, anti-oppressive work. Identity-affirming school mental health supports and practices prioritize cultural knowledge and ways of being and doing within relationships.

A term coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to describe the interactive effects of various forms of discrimination, including the specific kinds of challenges experienced by people with overlapping identities. For example, the experience, barriers and oppression that a Black-nonbinary student may face in school differs from that of cisgender Black student or white-nonbinary student because of the intertwining effects of various systems of oppression (such as racism, ableism, sexism, ageism and others). An intersectional lens allows us to examine how students’ different social identities (race, ability, gender, age, class, and more) are interconnected, and how different contexts create privilege and/or oppression.

COVID-19 amplifies the complexity of disability and race – Brighter World (

YouthREX glossary

Racial literacy refers having the knowledge, skills, awareness and dispositions to talk about race and racism. How do we think about race? How do we talk about race? How do we teach issues of race? Racial literacy also requires that we engage in serious self-reflection about our feelings on race, diversity, and opportunity for Black, Indigenous and racialized students.

What is Racial Literacy? A Call to Action for Teachers | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (

Whiteness has been socially constructed to unfairly confer unequal power and influence to white perspectives. White perspectives are historically rooted in colonialism and Eurocentrism. Placing white perspectives at the centre of society resulted in marginalizing other ways of knowing and being. At the centre, the power and influence of whiteness pervades all aspects of society and defines the standard by which everything else is measured and practiced, including school mental health. If whiteness continues to go unnamed and unchallenged as the default, the diversity of other ways of knowing and being continues to be marginalized.