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The role of schools in supporting student mental health

Good mental health is fundamental to every student’s ability to learn, succeed, and reach their full potential. Schools are part of the provincial mental health and addictions system. They are the ideal place for mental health promotion, the prevention of mental health problems, and the early identification of mental health concerns.

What the research says 

There is a strong rationale for focusing on student mental health at school:  

  • Although previously thought of as two separate domains, it is now understood that mental health and school success are interrelated. When educators enhance mental health in the classroom, they also enhance academic growth
  • Schools support students in cultivating and strengthening their existing knowledge and skills to care for their own mental health while providing high-quality mental health services for students experiencing mild-to-moderate mental health issues. ​ 
  • Available evidence demonstrates that promotion, prevention, and early intervention initiatives for mental health and addictions lead to student success and may prevent or minimize the burden of future mental health problems. 
  • Schools have an opportunity to help young people feel a sense of hope, purpose, belonging and meaning – all critical for positive mental health and well-being – by creating environments that affirm and celebrate students’ identities and nurture their strengths.  
  • The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing inequalities and highlighted the importance of centring the needs and strengths of students most disproportionately affected by the pandemic and wider social determinants of. ​  

Even before the pandemic, available epidemiological data highlighted a significant need for mental health support among children and youth, in Canada and globally: 

  • 70% of mental health and addiction issues begin in childhood and adolescence. 
  • One in five Ontario students aged 4 to 17 meet the criteria for a significant mental health issue. 
  • In Ontario, school-based services are reported as the most prevalent setting for students with mental health issues to initially seek help. For any mental health disorder, the first point of contact for students are schools: about 45%, versus mental health agencies at 26.

What is a mentally healthy school?  

A mentally healthy school prioritizes the mental health and well-being of students and staff, while honouring commitments to Truth and Reconciliation and equity. It is important to consider these commitments in our efforts to advance mental health, because identity and wellness are inextricably linked. Identity-affirming approaches, those that lead with individual, cultural and community strengths, help in supporting the well-being of every student and staff member at school.  

In a mentally healthy school, school staff: 

  • foster a sense of belonging 
  • take proactive steps to promote positive mental health 
  • provide support when mental health challenges arise  

Students in Ontario can thrive when schools embrace an approach to school mental health that includes wellness promotion, student engagement, and identity-affirming skill development as part of their daily educational experiences. In such environments, school staff are well equipped to notice when a student is struggling with their mental health and are able to connect them with additional supports and services when needed.  

What Ontario students say they want

School Mental Health Ontario, in partnership with Wisdom2Action, gathered input from secondary school students across Ontario through #HearNowON about their priorities for mental health learning and programming in their school communities. This information was gathered to inform strategic directions that emphasize the value of centring student voices and perspectives. 

Five recommendations were identified through the #HearNowON 2021 survey. Students want: 

  1. teachers and their parents/caregivers and families to learn more about mental health 
  2. to learn about mental health at school and prefer that this learning be frequent, early, and varied 
  3. greater access to tools and resources to support their mental health, cope with stress, and navigate peer support safely 
  4. strong equity-based and culturally responsive mental health resources and support 
  5. leadership opportunities to be more accessible to every student and to create space for different leadership styles

The importance of school administrators 

School administrators play a vital role in promoting students’ mental health and well-being. Leading a mentally healthy school requires a proactive approach that begins with strong leadership and a commitment to ongoing learning, assessment, action, and reflection. The school administrator has an essential role in setting the tone, creating a climate in which innovation is valued, and encouraging educator buy-in to whole-school initiatives. 

Through your leadership, you have the power to shape the culture of your school and create an environment where students feel supported, connected, and empowered. By fostering positive relationships, promoting positive mental health practices, and ensuring equitable access to culturally responsive and identity-affirming resources and supports, you can help to create a supportive and inclusive school environment where every student thrives.  

It’s important to note that the work of leading mentally healthy schools is complex and embedded in all aspects of your work. It is ongoing work that requires humility; a steady, determined pace; and a bold willingness to shake and shift school culture. You’re not expected to have all the answers but, rather, to create the conditions for the broader school community – including students, staff, parents/caregivers, and community members – to work together.

Schools as part of a system of care  

Schools are part of a broader system of mental health and addictions care for children and youth in Ontario. Schools use a multi-tiered system of support that is focused on promoting mental health literacy and wellness, early identification, prevention, and early intervention.   

Ontario’s system for supporting child and youth mental health also includes the community-based mental health and addictions sector, hospitals, youth wellness hubs, cultural and faith organizations, public health, and many others. To effectively meet the mental health needs of every child and youth in Ontario, these service settings can collaborate to provide a range of interventions and treatment options in different contexts at different intensity levels.  

The vision for a coordinated system of care in Ontario is outlined in Right Time, Right Care, a report developed by partners from the school and community mental health systems, specifically the Lead Agency Consortium, the Knowledge Institute on Child and Youth Mental Health, Children’s Mental Health Ontario, and School Mental Health Ontario.

Cénat, J. M., Farahi, S. M. M. M., & Dalexis, R. D. (2023). Prevalence and determinants of depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms among Black individuals in Canada in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychiatry Research, 326 (115341).

Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405–432.

Mental Health Commission of Canada. (2012). Making the case for investing in mental health in Canada.

Mental Health Commission of Canada. (2017). Children and youth.

Offord Centre for Child Studies at McMaster University. (2019). Ontario Child Health Study.

School and Community System of Care Collaborative. (2022). Right time, right care: Strengthening Ontario’s mental health and addictions system of care for children and young people.

Thunderbird Partnership Foundation. (n.d.). First Nations Wellness Continuum.

Vaillancourt, T., McDougall, P., Comeau, J. & Finn, C. (2021). COVID-19 school closures and social isolation in children and youth: prioritizing relationships in education. Facets. 6, 1795-1813.

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