The problem with the stigma around mental health is really about the stories that we tell ourselves as a society. What is normal? That’s just a story that we tell ourselves. ~Matthew Quick~
This week schools and workplaces in communities across Canada will continue the conversation about mental health as part of the Let’s Talk campaign on January 28th. The initiative, sponsored in part by Bell Canada, has been instrumental in raising awareness of the issues and statistics related to mental health; for both children and adults. As a school board, and school community, we are working to better understand the needs of the members of our communities who face mental health challenges so we may meet these needs in a way that is respectful, collaborative and supportive.
In the context of our school we have grown in our understanding that mental health impacts not only our students, but also the parents of our students and our staff. A broad term, we see mental health manifest itself in many ways; usually through behaviors like withdrawal, volatile and impulsive actions or extreme mood swings. These can be the result of anxiety, attention difficulties or communication disorders; such as Autism Spectrum Disorder. Whether they are the result of environmental conditions, the stresses of daily life or neurologically based; these difficulties are real for those who endure them and deserve to be treated as such- behavior, after all, is communication.
Our goal his year has been to reduce the stigma associated with mental health, while we learn about, and add to our tool kit of strategies and resources in this area. The leadership of our school HUB Team (Helping Understand Behavior) has been key in moving us toward this goal; during instructional and non-instructional time, in our classrooms, hallways and playgrounds. Just as the student who has physical challenges is entitled to a wheelchair or pair of glasses, or a student with a learning disability benefits from the use of a laptop; students with mental health challenges have the right to learn in an environment where they are safe and supported. In our classrooms, we make use of a wide range of tools and approaches; from yoga balls (instead of chairs) to noise reducing headphones and sensory bins as well as activity breaks and yoga.
Each of these is designed to help the student develop the skills to self-regulate so they may socialize and learn as part of our school community and understand that differences are not weaknesses. This is new territory for schools, as our past practice has been to punish children for behaviors that were often the result of underlying mental health issues and, in doing so, we not only added to the stigma, but failed to recognize the behavior as a call for help.
Moving beyond January 28th, we look for more opportunities to continue this important conversation.