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School mental health strategy focuses on pandemic response, recovery

New three-year strategy charts course for school mental health support in Ontario.

School Mental Health Ontario has released the 2022-2025 School Mental Health Strategy to guide efforts in supporting student mental health across the province. The three-year strategy builds on foundational work from prior years to further advance the uptake of a range of evidence-informed mental health promotion, prevention, and early intervention supports and services in Ontario schools.  Mental health leadership teams within each school board use this strategy to develop a local mental health and addictions strategy that is contextualized for the students served within their school communities. 

Each year of the strategy includes a focused one-year action plan provincially and within each school board. This year, the focus of the School Mental Health Ontario action plan is response and recovery from the evolving pandemic, with a focus on students who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, and/or who are negatively affected by inequities associated with the social determinants of health. Students who are racialized and/or marginalized or disadvantaged have carried heavier burdens through the pandemic, requiring a focused and differentiated response that centres their needs and affirms their identities and strengths.

“Our approach to school mental health in Ontario needs to allow for differentiation and for identity-affirming supports so that we are creating that critical sense of belonging and hope for young people,” explains Dr. Kathy Short, executive director of School Mental Health Ontario. “We’ve intentionally placed ‘every student’ at the centre of the strategy to encourage strong consideration of each student’s unique identity when planning relevant mental health supports and services.”

The strategy is based on a multi-tiered system of support, a globally recognized approach to school mental health service delivery. The approach includes three tiers:

“Mental health promotion and everyday wellness encompasses so much of what educators and other school staff do instinctively in their roles,” explains Short. “We have a range of classroom-ready resources and tools available that have been co-created with Ontario educators and school mental health professionals to enhance everyday mental health in the classroom.  We also have course modules and facilitated workshops to support the mental health literacy of school staff, so they can help to notice when a student might be struggling with a mental health problem and have the tools they need to provide role-specific support.  A key part of the 2022-2025 strategy is to ensure that school staff are aware of these resources, and receive the support they need to make use of them in a nuanced way with the students they serve”

In the 2022-2025 strategy, tier two supports and services focus on the uptake of evidence-informed, identity-affirming prevention and early intervention protocols. A range of training opportunities are provided to school mental health professionals throughout the year so they can add high yield brief interventions like the Brief Intervention for School Clinicians and Brief Digital Interventions to their practice.

Notes Short, “When young people receive high-quality evidence informed, identity affirming, supports early, the need for more intensive services in the future may be decreased.  Our goal is to have identity-affirming school mental health protocols and practices available to students in every board across the province.

When young people require more intensive, specialized, or culturally-specific interventions, strong pathways and partnerships with community mental health organizations are key.  The 2022-2025 strategy places high value on working collaboratively with partners to reach the vision described in Right Time, Right Care , so that every student has access to identity-affirming, evidence-informed care to meet their mental health needs.

In summary, through provincial guidance, implementation coaching, training and professional learning, co-created resources, and a provincial school mental health community of practice, School Mental Health Ontario aims to advance identity-affirming school mental health practice across the tiers of intervention, with specific supports that are responsive to needs arising during the pandemic.  The 2022-2025 Strategy provides a north star for enhancing student mental health through school-based services, as part of a larger system of care.

The full strategic plan is available on the School Mental Health Ontario website.