How Ontario’s school mental health strategy works
Every Ontario student deserves to have access to evidence-based mental health promotion and prevention programming. Our model in Ontario is designed to help students flourish and remain resilient as they journey through life.
Each school district in Ontario has a mental health leader, a regulated mental health professional, who has responsibility for working with the superintendent and leadership team to create and implement their district’s mental health strategy and action plan. The mental health leader reports to a superintendent with responsibility for mental health. Together, they support a board mental health leadership team that guides and monitors the strategy and action plan.
School boards have a district-level mental health leadership team that includes representation from many stakeholder groups (e.g., elementary and secondary principals, elementary and secondary teachers, school mental health professionals, parents, students, etc.). This team is responsible for helping to develop the board mental health and addictions strategy and action plan, and to monitor related progress. Many schools have a school mental health leadership team, led by the principal and/or vice-principal, that oversees the school-level mental health action plan, in alignment with the board strategy. These teams work with the mental health leader and superintendent to develop, implement and evaluate their mental health action plans.
In order to enhance quality and coherence, School Mental Health Ontario sets a provincial strategy and action plan based on the latest research. The strategy is rooted in both mental health and implementation science evidence.
Implementation coaches from School Mental Health Ontario have regular contact with mental health leaders and superintendents – through provincial, regional, and individual board connections. Support includes professional development, coaching and shared learning across school districts. We encourage boards to follow our coaching model at the board level as mental health leaders are well-positioned to support school-level teams via similar coaching methods.
Educators and school/system leaders have access to online and facilitated learning opportunities related to their role in supporting student mental health. Training for school mental health professionals in structured psychotherapy was added to the suite of professional learning offerings in 2019. School mental health professionals can also access special interest group meetings and webinars on timely topics, like non-suicidal self-injury, eating disorders, early psychosis, progress monitoring in mental health, etc.
Our subject-area experts work with school board staff to develop and test resources and approaches to scale across the province. A co-creative process ensures that resources will be relevant and useful for the field. We collect and analyze data to inform and refine resources before they are released and scaled up across the province. Our Innovation and Scale Up Lab facilitates learning about implementation.
We collaborate with education, health, and youth mental health organizations on research, resource creation and communication.
Four principles of school mental health support in Ontario
In the area of mental health, the main role of schools is to promote wellness, facilitate skill development, and support early identification and intervention when problems arise. We embrace a positive, upstream approach to mental health in schools and help with the selection and uptake of evidence-based strategies that are suited to the school setting.
A multi-tiered system of support is an effective way to organize school mental health activities. We follow an Aligned and Integration Model (AIM) for our system of support in Ontario schools.
Tier 1: Good for all
Mental health promotion for all students
All students benefit from everyday mental health promotion. Teachers, administrators and other school staff work together to create caring and inclusive schools and classrooms. Support is part of regular class and school activities. At Tier 1, we:
- Welcome –we create social and physical environments where students feel they belong
- Include – we create opportunities for student engagement in mental health activities and school life
- Understand – we build our mental health literacy and get to know our students
- Promote – we embed mental health literacy within teaching and learning
- Partner – we work with parents, students, community and each other to provide a circle of support for students
Tier 2: Necessary for some
Preventive interventions for students at risk
Some students may require additional support. Other professionals in the school or board become involved to support the student and supplement the support provided in the classroom.
At this second level, we:
- Prevent – we provide early intervention services
- Support – we offer ongoing classroom support
- Bolster – we build skills and resiliency
Tier 3: Essential for a few
More intensive therapy for students struggling with a significant mental health problem
Despite our best efforts to create mentally healthy classrooms, there will always be some students who struggle with a mental health problem. Students who experience significant distress and who may be more vulnerable require more targeted supports and interventions provided by trained mental health professionals either through the school district or in the community.
Bringing research-based mental health programming to life in school systems requires more than hosting events or awareness-building campaigns, providing staff training workshops, or purchasing a set of materials.
Our use of mental health leadership teams, common organizational conditions and cycles for planning and evaluation are based on foundational concepts from implementation science.
Through our Innovation and Scale-Up Lab, we co-create, evaluate and disseminate high-yield approaches to student mental health. We invest in evidence-based, implementation-sensitive programming that can be embedded, maintained and scaled within the context of Ontario schools.
For more detailed information on the approach in Ontario, please see the article posted in the International Journal of Mental Health Promotion, Intentional, explicit, systematic: Implementation and scale-up of effective practices for supporting student mental well-being in Ontario schools.