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Foundations for mentally healthy schools

For resources, services, and programs to reach every student and yield positive outcomes over time, schools and school boards must have the foundations for scalable and sustainable mental health practice.

Why this is important

  • The foundations are relevant for system leaders as directors and superintendents of education create the conditions at a board level that facilitate the uptake and widespread use of high-yield mentally healthy practices.
  • The same foundations are equally relevant at a school level, as principals and vice-principals develop and sustain the conditions needed for the uptake of whole-school and class-wide mental health promotion programming.
  • Reflecting on the foundations can help school administrators determine where to focus energy and resources to establish the climate and setting within which identity-affirming, evidence-informed mental health practices can thrive in their schools.

The evidence and answers you need when you need them

Download the Leading Mentally Healthy Schools ebook, our comprehensive leadership guide packed with actionable ideas based on the latest evidence.

Leadership commitment: It starts with you

Leadership commitment is critical to aligning the school’s core work and ensuring quality, consistency, and sustainability in school mental health. The work of identity-affirming school mental health requires courageous leadership and the will to learn and do at the same time.

  • This commitment to identity-affirming school mental health will foster positive learning environments for every student.
  • When school administrators prioritize mental health and well-being, it sets the tone for others to follow suit. Educators and staff members feel valued for their work in this area and are encouraged to prioritize their students’ mental health needs.
  • Visibly prioritize mental health and well-being in school plans and your actions.
  • Lead, model, communicate, and support decisions and activities that foster an identity-affirming, mentally healthy school environment.
  • Ensure equitable access to mental health professionals for every student. This will require analyzing data, policies, and practices for disparities and disproportionalities.
  • Actively seek and listen to feedback from students, parents/caregivers, and community partners to evaluate your work in this area.
  • Provide learning and training opportunities for staff members. This will enable them to effectively support students’ mental health needs in their respective roles.

Resources to support leadership commitment

Engagement and collaboration: It’s a team effort

Promoting identity-affirming student mental health requires collective effort. Engaging with those most involved, early and ongoing, helps to build shared ownership and leads to more impactful outcomes. Meaningful collaboration and engagement require humility, partnership, and an intentional effort to centre the voices, perspectives, and expertise of those historically marginalized and oppressed.

  • Collaboration with students, parents/caregivers, and community partners helps to ensure that mental health initiatives that are selected and introduced are identity-affirming, relevant, and culturally responsive.
  • Involving parents/caregivers and communities ensures that plans are comprehensive and that they consider the mental health and well-being of the whole child.
  • Involving community partners can ensure coordinated approaches to mental health support for students.
  • Students have much to offer and want to be involved in initiatives that promote mental health and reduce stigma, as highlighted in the #HearNowON report. They are especially well positioned to identify priority needs related to mental health knowledge and the required supports.
  • Students affected by various forms of systemic oppression experience a range of adverse mental health outcomes (e.g., elevated rates of self-harm and suicidal behaviour, victims of violence and bullying, presence in correctional facilities) and have more difficulty accessing culturally responsive and identity-affirming preventive mental health services. Mentally healthy schools offer platforms for the perspectives of marginalized students, parents/caregivers, and communities to inform mental health supports and services.
  • School staff are most influential in implementation, so their input is essential for effective uptake and sustainable practice.
  • Start engagement and collaboration efforts with the understanding that they will require effort, time, humility, and authenticity to create respectful and trusting relationships.
  • Be open to different approaches, timelines, and paces.
  • Focus on diverse, representative, and widespread collaboration with staff, students, parents/caregivers, and community members. Work alongside to create supportive environments that disrupt and remove barriers to participation for marginalized individuals (e.g., offering transportation or childcare, meeting at different times or locations, providing meals).
  • Make engagement efforts routine (not a one-time offering) and ensure that co-created guidelines and norms are in place to facilitate collaborative conversations and shared decision-making.
  • Evaluate engagement and collaboration efforts and always ask, “Who is not represented or included?”
  • When planning consultation or collaboration, remember that involvement should be meaningful – there should be real opportunities for influence. Be sure to report back following any consultations so participants know what actions have resulted from what was shared – or if nothing is happening, why not.
  • Follow a listen-and-believe commitment. Actively listen to participants’ stories and experiences and believe them. Stories are valuable and powerful evidence.
  • Provide workshops and tip sheets for families that connect to your school’s health planning. Consider offering events at locations other than the school (e.g., a faith centre in the community), in various languages, and at various times during the day.
  • Cultivate opportunities for school staff to enhance their capacity to support student engagement initiatives, including allowing staff time, space, and permission to engage in professional development, planning, and initiatives related to student engagement.

Resources to support engagement and collaboration

Vision and strategy: Your path forward

All school boards in Ontario are required to have a three-year mental health and addictions strategy with a yearly action plan (as per PPM 169: Student Mental Health) that aligns with the Student Achievement Plan. Goals within the strategy focus on local mental health needs and priorities and often align with the provincial strategy through School Mental Health Ontario. This vision forms the foundation for delivering mental health promotion and services within schools.

  • Schools are ideal places for mental health promotion, and the prevention and early intervention of mental health concerns. The work you do at your school to support student mental health should align with the board’s vision and strategy and is critical to the success of the strategy.
  • The vision guides the development, implementation, and decision-making of mental health promotion, supports, and services in schools. School-level actions can be incorporated into your School Improvement Plan.
  • Know and understand the goals specific to mental health and well-being in the Student Achievement Plan and mental health and addictions strategy and action plan to ensure alignment. Incorporate mental health planning in your regular iterative process of school improvement planning.
  • Seek to understand the strengths and needs related to mental health and well-being within your school community. Use the Leading Mentally Healthy Schools Reflection Tool to support your reflection and planning. If you’ve organized a team to promote mental health at your school, consider completing the reflection tool collaboratively.
  • As part of planning, invite staff to reflect on the elements of a mentally healthy classroom using the Mentally Healthy Classroom Reflection Tool. Dialogue as a staff to identify opportunities to think in a school-wide manner.
  • Review available data to understand where to focus your efforts. A powerful source of information may be the disaggregated data from the student census, if you have results from the school and depending on the questions included, as it may help you identify any opportunity gaps related to student identity. Other data may include course selection and achievement, enrolment, climate survey, and student voice initiatives. You can also talk with students, staff, parents/caregivers, and community partners to understand some of the opportunity gaps related to student mental health.
  • Consider actions you can take at the school level that support the goals outlined in the board strategy and that align with the opportunities and needs you’ve identified through reflection and data review. In many cases, the Student Achievement Plan will include actions that affect all schools; for example, for educators to complete School Mental Health Ontario’s MH LIT: Mental Health in Action online course. The sections in this resource provide guidance aligned to the provincial three-year strategy to support your action planning.
  • Identify opportunities to collaborate with staff, students, parents/caregivers, and community partners throughout the action-planning and implementation phases.
  • Ensure you are addressing the needs of every student. Indigenous, Black, and marginalized student perspectives may be missing in mental health conversations, and school administrators have the power to make sure that doesn’t continue. For example, you can start by working with staff, students, parents/caregivers, and the community to identify and address oppressive policies and practices at the school level that disproportionately and negatively affect the mental health of racialized and marginalized students.
  • Recognize that efforts to support student mental health don’t stand alone from other initiatives in your school – everything is connected. For example, your school’s approach to supporting daily physical activity can also support student and staff mental health. Any programs operating at your school to address food insecurity are connected to mental health. Your efforts to ensure culturally responsive learning and teaching also support student mental health.

Resources to support vision and strategy

Infrastructure: Your coordinated system of support

In Ontario, every school board has a mental health leadership team consisting of the superintendent responsible for mental health, the mental health leader, and in many cases, a clinical managers or staff who provide psychology and social work services. The mental health leader is a regulated mental health professional responsible for coordinating the development and implementation of the board’s mental health and addictions strategy and action plan. They work with the rest of the team to select initiatives that support the mental health strategy and action plan, review related data, make key decisions, and monitor and communicate progress. In the same way, schools have, or can create a school-level leadership team to support coordinated decision-making and implementation of programming related to the promotion of mental health.

  • A dedicated school mental health team with your leadership support is critical to ensuring that mental health and well-being are prioritized and embedded within the school culture.
  • The school mental health team should consider participation from a range of professional staff with diverse lived experiences.
  • Develop or access other established structures to ensure representation and voice from key stakeholders include students, staff, parents/caregivers, community partners.
  • Look to the board’s three-year strategy and action plan for guidance on initiatives to align with your school goals.
  • The board mental health leadership team may offer training and other opportunities to help you and your team continue to build your knowledge and skills in leading mentally healthy schools. Your school-level leadership team can contextualize this learning for school staff (e.g., adapt slides from the board mental health leadership team for use at a PD day for staff).
  • Support and collaborate with the board mental health leadership team to ensure alignment of student mental health initiatives and action planning.
  • Consider how you might build and utilize a mental health leadership team at the school level. This team can include staff members reflecting the different roles within the school, parents/caregivers, students, and community partners. The mental health leadership team supports achieving, monitoring, and measuring the student mental health and well-being goal(s) embedded within your School Improvement Plan.
  • You might also recognize that mental health fits well into an existing committee or team within your school community. Student mental health can be supported by the work you are already doing related to equity and inclusion, school climate and belonging, safe and healthy schools, and more. It’s not essential to create a new committee or team, but embedding student mental health into the leadership infrastructure within your school is an important part of demonstrating leadership commitment – the first foundation.

Resources to support infrastructure

Processes and protocols: Your guidance

In Ontario, every board is expected to have protocols and processes related to mental health supports and services (see PPM 169: Student Mental Health). Protocols provide documented guidance and system clarity in supporting student mental health promotion and the prevention and early intervention of mental health concerns. Processes support the dissemination, implementation, use, and monitoring of all mental health resources and practices.

  • Protocols and processes are in place to ensure safe and responsible practices related to student mental health (e.g., suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention protocol).
  • Service delivery model processes describe the roles and services available within the board to assist with mild-to-moderate student mental health concerns.
  • Partnership protocols outline who can provide services within the school setting, what services they may offer, and how these should be delivered (see PPM 149).
  • Be familiar with board-level protocols and processes related to student mental health to ensure alignment with school-level protocols and processes.
  • Make sure school-level protocols and processes ensure safe, culturally responsive, and evidence-informed decision-making regarding supports and services related to mental health and well-being.
  • Ensure that any relevant protocols and processes are communicated to and understood by staff.
  • Follow processes for decision support related to mental health programs, initiatives, and awareness activities in school, such as speakers, mental health surveys, and peer-support strategies.

Resources to support protocols and processes

Evidence and monitoring: Know it’s working

Reviewing and assessing needs, gaps, resources, initiatives, and capacity is an important part of the school planning process – you are already doing this work. It is important to inform mental health supports for students with data, and it is just as important to evaluate and monitor those supports to ensure their effectiveness.

  • Implementation and outcome indicators, and measurement tools that inform needs and monitor uptake and effectiveness, are essential for making decisions related to supporting student mental health.
  • Continuous quality improvement cycles with progress monitoring help in understanding the success of implementation.
  • Mental health supports and services should be adjusted or changed if they are not meeting their intended goals.
  • By carefully considering service access and satisfaction with supports, disparities in student experiences can be illuminated.
  • As you set actions in your School Improvement Plan, include indicators that you will use to measure progress toward your goals. Refer back to the data available for your school. Consider which indicators you’re focusing on changing and ensure that you have benchmarks so you can measure the progress.
  • Monitoring and evaluating are ongoing practices. With the school-based mental health leadership team, check in on your plan at various points to review the indicators for your goals and consider whether you’re making progress or need to adjust/change.
  • If you used the Leading Mentally Healthy Schools Reflection Tool and Mentally Health Classroom Reflection Tool as part of your vision and action planning, consider completing them again throughout the year to assess progress.

Resources to support evidence and monitoring

Internal and external communication: Let others know

Having clear and supportive communication across multiple channels with internal and external stakeholders about student mental health and well-being helps to build shared language and understanding. School administrators also share the responsibility of ensuring that the board’s mental health and addictions strategy and action plan is communicated to internal and external stakeholders.

  • How school administrators view mental health and mental illnesses has an impact on all aspects of communication; therefore, it is important to examine assumptions and biases. Fact-based communication about mental health can build confidence and may reduce stigma.
  • Communication helps to build trust. Lack of communication undermines it. Consistent, clear, and concise communication can help to foster relationships, build awareness, and, over time, support behavioural and attitudinal change.
  • Effective internal and external communication builds a common language and understanding of mental health within the school community to support the widespread use of mentally healthy practices. It can help to eliminate confusion about roles within the system of care and to ensure that students, staff, and parents/caregivers know how to access support when needed.
  • Regularly and effectively communicating your school’s plan to support student mental health can inspire and validate the efforts of parents/caregivers, staff, and students in support of these priorities.
  • Internal staff communication is the first priority. It helps to build an understanding of why certain initiatives are happening and how they fit with the overall school strategy. It can also help staff respond to questions they may receive. Staff need to know about:
    • the board’s strategy and school plan
    • the importance of mental health promotion and how it relates to learning
    • what to do if they’re concerned about a student’s mental health
    • how they can support students with mental health concerns
    • the board’s suicide-prevention, intervention, and postvention protocols – all school administrators and educators must have working knowledge of these protocols and know how to reach out for help immediately on behalf of students
    • how they can access employer support for their own mental health
    • changes, new programs, or tragic/challenging situations that are affecting the school community and what their role is
  • When planning communication, start with your established communication channels –incorporate messaging across channels. The goal isn’t to create new work but to use what you have in place and build from there.
  • Remember that face-to-face communication remains a powerful form of communication – it’s easy to do with the staff and students in your school. For parents/caregivers, opportunities include:
    • providing a few speaking points that educators can use during parent/caregiver–teacher interviews
    • adding messaging to speaking notes for in-person events (e.g., back-to-school, curriculum nights, concerts, school council events)
    • informal chats at pick-up/drop-off
    • hosting activities specific to mental health at the school or at locations in the community
    • setting up a booth at events that highlights activities that promote mental health at your school (e.g., orientation day, curriculum night)
  • Before you communicate, ask yourself: who needs to know this, what do they need/want to know, and how do they want to hear about it? Remember that communication hasn’t happened unless the message is received, so ensure you’re repeating messaging and using multiple methods and channels to reach people.
  • Examine and address communication barriers between school and home and community – for example, if you’ve changed to primarily digital communication, are you reaching all families? Consider communicating using the languages spoken within your student population.
  • Ask the board mental health leadership team if there is templated content you can adapt for your school. This might include tips for parents/caregivers or guidance on how to access support through the school. Check the parent/caregiver section of the School Mental Health Ontario website for content to adapt. Many of the resources also include communication materials for home.
  • Invite and welcome two-way communication. Let students, staff, and parents/caregivers know they can ask questions. If you receive comments on social media or questions through any other channel, respond promptly. If you don’t have the answer and it’ll take some time to find, you can reply to let the person know that.
  • Some messages are better as one-on-one conversations – while making a personal phone call may take more time, it can go a long way to building trust and relationships.
  • Communicate the aspirational goals for student mental health in positive and strengths-based terms. The goal is to foster a safe and supportive learning environment where every student feels valued and cared for and to provide resources and education to promote positive mental health.
  • Communicate and celebrate successes and achievements, building confidence and hope in the collective efforts needed to realize improved well-being and mental health across the school.

Gómez, J. M., Gobin, R. L., Barnes, M. L. (2021) Discrimination, violence, & healing within marginalized communities. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 22(2), 135-140,

Hochhauser, S., Rao, S., England-Kennedy, E & Roy, S. (2020). Why social justice matters: a context for suicide prevention efforts. International Journal for Equity in Health, 19 (76).

Wisdom2Action & School Mental Health Ontario. (2021). #HearNowON: Ontario student perspectives on school mental health. Summary report.