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Equity and Mental Health

Brief overview

Ontario students reflect a wide range of intersecting social and cultural identities, including and not limited to ancestry, race, culture, gender identity & expression, geographic location, language, mental health and well-being, physical and intellectual ability, religion, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status. These factors can contribute to the development of a positive sense of self and offer important tools for resilience. They may also be negatively targeted, resulting in significant injustices and inequalities that students experience every day.

The reality of discrimination and oppression creates and reinforces barriers to equitable mental health outcomes. For example, discrimination can increase levels of stigmatization and trauma, and can decrease access to appropriate school-based mental health services.

Mental health is a positive sense of well-being is influenced by factors including personal experiences and the social, cultural and economic conditions across our lifespan, often referred to as the social determinants of (mental) health. ‘’A person’s mental health and …common disorders are shaped by various social, economic, and physical environments operating at different stages of life. Risk factors for many common mental disorders are heavily associated with social inequalities, whereby the greater the inequality the higher the inequality in risk.’’ (World Health Organization and Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2014).

The role of the SMH professional

School mental health professionals play an important role in working with system and school leaders, and school staff, from an anti-oppressive stance to promote equity and inclusion for all students. You help to address the barriers that reinforce marginalization and oppression and to ensure that school mental health services are culturally and socially responsive to the unique mental health and well-being needs of each student and family.  

Tips for SMH professionals for culturally responsive practice in school mental health

(adapted from J.M. Jones Best Practices in Providing Culturally Responsive Interventions)

  • Explore and examine your own identity, culture, beliefs, values and attitudes.
  • Build cultural self-awareness and cultural literacy.
  • Understand how to support students with personal and cultural identities that are different than your own.
  • Engage with the student and their family to learn more about their identities, cultures, beliefs, traditions and values.
  • Build relationships with teachers, principals and other school staff to learn about the students and the school community (e.g. cultural and socio-economic).
  • Identify and connect students to culturally relevant school supports, inclusive clubs and safe spaces (protective factors).
  • Identify & connect students to culturally relevant community supports, inclusive clubs and safe spaces (protective factors).
  • Advocate for culturally relevant school supports, inclusive clubs and safe spaces where these do not yet exist.
  • Build relationships with professionals and community leaders/key stakeholders to consult about specific local cultural norms, traditional practices and protocols (e.g. considerations for group work).
  • Offer and access translators to facilitate communication with students and families
  • Explore & address potential barriers and microaggressions that students may be experiencing due to discrimination.
  • Explore and build on student’s internal and external strengths within the context of their often-intersecting identities and cultures.
  • Engage the student and their family to establish and access a circle of support that is culturally relevant and meaningful.
  • Remember that stronger positive connections to language and culture are an important part of intervention.

For more information

Understand anti-Black racism

Understand the intersectionality of equity, mental health and the social determinants of mental health

Focus on human rights and address inequalities

Acknowledge and learn about Indigenous worldviews as they relate to mental health and wellbeing

Practice a culturally responsive, strengths-based approach

Special Interest Group materials

Over the past few years, SMHO has embarked on a learning journey in collaboration with key experts to better understand the students we serve and the supports required to help them access mental health and well-being in meaningful and culturally responsive ways. 

We will continue to build this suite of materials to assist you. Explore the topics below.  Please contact us to suggest other topics that may be of interest, or if you would like to access any webinars on the topics below.

  • Early Years Student Mental Health
  • Immigrant, Refugee, Newcomer and Ethnocultural Student Mental Health
  • Indigenous Student Mental Health
  • LGBTQ2S+ Student Mental Health

Equity and Mental Health Reference Group

Our Equity and Mental Health Reference Group includes representatives from across the province. Together, they support our resource development, initiatives, and future action planning. Get involved!  Contact us for more information.

Have a question about this topic?

Contact us. We can review relevant research to help to answer your question.  In cases where several requests focus on the same theme, we can arrange for a more comprehensive review which will be shared on the School Mental Health Ontario site.

Suggest a topic

We will continue to expand our resources based on input. Please send us your ideas for topics to cover so we can meet your professional learning needs.