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Healthy Bodies & Minds

Wednesday, May 30, 2012 - 14:52
High school students working in a classroom

How the H&PE Curriculum is Laying the Foundation for a Lifetime of Positive Mental Health

When we hear the phrase ‘mental health’ we often think about illnesses like depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder—but mental health is more than the absence of disease. According to the World Health Organization, “mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community. ” Practicing strategies for increasing our mental health can help us all to realize our personal potential. And while most mental illnesses are associated with biological and environmental factors beyond an individual’s control, building resilience — or learning to ‘bounce back’ from adversity and cope with life’s stresses — is a strong protective factor for those among us who may be predisposed or vulnerable to mental illness. The sooner we learn to manage our mental health, the better overall health we’re likely to experience throughout life. Luckily for Ontario’s kids, the revised (2010) elementary health and physical education (H&PE) curriculum places a strong focus on promoting and maintaining mental health, building an understanding of mental illness, and reducing stigma and stereotypes.

How does the revised H&PE curriculum promote mental health?

The learning expectations in the revised H&PE curriculum are organized into three distinct but related strands–Active Living, Movement Competence and Healthy Living. This last strand places a special emphasis on topics related to mental health. Beyond specific expectations, teachers will also find a variety of prompts in the document to guide discussions, along with sample student responses. Meanwhile, a further set of expectations is woven through all three strands. These are the “living skills” or, in other words, the personal, interpersonal and critical and creative thinking skills that can help students to develop resilience and a secure sense of self as they learn to set goals and solve problems—all things which are key to the maintenance of good mental health. “The revised curriculum does a great job of talking about health holistically,” says Robin Glenney, the primary physical education teacher at MacTier Public School in MacTier, Ontario. “By the time kids are in grades one, two and three, they understand that it’s every bit as important to keep their minds healthy as it is to keep their bodies healthy.” And this knowledge is vital to their long-term well-being and success. After all, without mental health, it is difficult for an individual to reach his or her potential for physical health, and being healthy in mind and body contributes significantly to positive learning outcomes. “We know that kids with good life skills will do better academically,” says Gloria Chaim, Deputy Clinical Director of the Child, Youth and Family Program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). “We also know that kids who exercise and eat well and sleep well do better in other areas of their life too.”

Why address mental health at such a young age?

Due to their personal nature and the stigmas they carry, topics related to mental health can be tricky for educators to address. Many may tend to shy away from open discussions for fear of saying the wrong thing. Surely difficult subjects like mental illnesses are more appropriate for teenagers than for younger children, anyway... But this simply isn’t the case. One in five Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. The remaining four will have a friend, family member or colleague who will —and, regardless of their age, nobody is immune. In fact, seventy percent of mental health problems and illnesses have their onset during childhood or adolescence , and children in this age group are the least likely to access mental health services. Whether this is due to feelings of shame and fear, or simply a lack of knowledge about the services that are available, teachers have a key role to play in educating students about mental health issues and helping those who are experiencing difficulties to get the help they need. “Because teachers see kids six hours a day in school, they’re able to get to know them and can often spot changes in their behaviour,” says Heather Gardner, Ophea’s Curriculum Consultant. “They can also work as facilitators between parents and guardians, the community and other support services that might be required.”

How can educators help to dispel the myths about mental illness?

Talking openly—and often—about mental health is the best way to dispel the myths and reduce the stigmas and stereotypes that are often associated with mental illnesses. “Talking openly about mental health shows students that it’s an okay thing to talk about,” says Glenney, “and when students see that it’s something everyone is talking about, they feel more comfortable sharing their own experiences.” The first and most important step in beginning these types of discussions is for teachers to get the facts about mental health themselves. If in doubt, turn to the experts. Ophea has a variety of resources available (including a new mental health workshop, which can be accessed through Ophea’s Professional Learning Catalogue starting this fall, and the H&PE Curriculum Resources, which include more than 1,000 downloadable and searchable lesson plans addressing all 2010 Ontario H&PE curriculum expectations). Your local public health unit will also be able to provide assistance and resources, and many programs and resources are available through provincial and national groups like CAMH, Kids Help Phone, Parent Action on Drugs and Children’s Mental Health Ontario . But while these groups provide excellent support, the resources you need can often be found even closer to home. “Because many of our students are Aboriginal/First Nations, I turn a lot to the Band for support,” says Glenney. At her school, in the Muskoka area, a strong focus is placed on the 7 Grandfathers’ teachings. “Oftentimes in smaller areas we don’t have the same kinds of resources as in urban centres, but that’s not to say we don’t have resources.” If you’re still feeling anxious about beginning the discussion, you could invite a school counsellor, local mental health worker or other appropriate community member to come in to speak with students to create an understanding around the topic. It’s important, however, not to address the topic of mental health in isolation or through a single lesson or unit. Including mental illness in any discussion you have about diversity and acceptance is one way to make a big difference—as is looking for ongoing opportunities to help students develop empathy and understanding. “I remember that I was shocked as a kid to learn that my teacher didn’t live at the school,” laughs Chaim, commenting on the narrow and inaccurate views children sometimes hold because they simply don’t know any better yet. “Broadening students’ thinking is really helpful,” she adds. “It’s important to help them understand that people are not one thing. If I have a physical disability, or if I have an emotional challenge, I am not that challenge. I’m a complex person.” Another way to reinforce this message is to challenge any negative terms used to refer to people with mental illnesses (psycho, lunatic, etc.) and to let students know that it’s important to use respectful phrases that put the person first (for example, ‘a person with schizophrenia’ rather than ‘a schizophrenic’). Teachers can also stress that mental illnesses are caused by chemical imbalances in a person’s brain, and that such an illness is not the individual’s fault any more than an illness like cancer or a stroke is someone’s fault. Furthermore, with the right support, an individual can manage a mental illness and lead a full and productive life.

How can H&PE classes promote mental health?

When it comes to the promotion of mental health, some of the most powerful strategies already come naturally to most H&PE teachers. The first is simply showing that you care about your students not only academically, but as unique individuals. “We have community time where we talk about our evening or weekend,” says Glenney. “Having that time to talk about how we’re feeling is paramount. It allows students to see that as teachers we’re concerned about them as human beings first.” Glenney also describes a recent ‘eat and meet’ evening held at her school. Parents were invited to visit the school for a meal of healthy wraps and subs, and part of the student council put together a healthy cookbook for parents to take home. These activities reinforced the lessons students were learning about healthy eating, but that was far from being the only benefit. “It was a great opportunity for kids to see their parents and teachers coming together and caring about them,” Glenney adds. Another powerful strategy already employed by most educators is to focus on the positive as much as possible when it comes to student achievement. This doesn’t mean avoiding discussions about areas for improvement, but rather looking for areas where students are already successful and building on those to encourage other successes. “If they only got two answers right say, ‘Those two answers were very well done! How can we work on the others?’” suggests Chaim. “It’s about helping kids to look at the glass half full and helping them to understand and value what their strengths are. Then, when challenges arise in their lives, they’ll be able to pull on those strengths to help them deal with adversity.”

How can keeping mental health top-of-mind lead to a lifetime of improved well-being?

“I think one of the real strengths of the revised curriculum is that we’ve moved away from a topic-specific curriculum and toward an overall sense of being effective learners,” says Glenney. “It’s about being physically and health literate.” In other words, if we can equip students with the capacity to move with competence and confidence in a wide variety of physical activities, as well as the life skills they’ll need to make good decisions, form healthy relationships and cope with stress, they’ll be able to apply these skills long after they’ve left school. As a result, their capacity for a lifetime of health and well-being will increase dramatically. Furthermore, by openly addressing the topic of mental illness, we can bring it out of the shadows and dispel much of the fear that surrounds it. “When we talk about physical, emotional and spiritual health, we’re teaching kids that it’s okay to have problems in these areas and that there are things they can do to deal with them,” says Glenney. And this normalization of mental health as a topic for discussion could well mean the difference between an individual who seeks help and learns to manage a mental illness, and one who falls through the cracks. “Life throws all kinds of curve balls at you,” concludes Chaim. “You need some skills to catch the ball, to deflect the ball and to know when to duck.” And what better place could there be to learn and practise those skills than in a supportive school environment, with a caring teacher?


Gurpreet Singh
Just got to this article now and so glad I discovered it and found these valuable resources to assist me in educating students and colleagues about an often taboo topic even in Health & PE! Thank you!