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A Holistic Approach to Mental Health

Monday, May 2, 2016 - 13:33

How the H&PE Curriculum is Fostering the Well-being of Students from Grades 1–12

Mental health depends on—and is connected to—so many things. From having a supportive social environment, to making healthy choices about substance use, to eating nutritious foods and getting enough exercise and sleep, the choices we make and the circumstances we find ourselves in affect our mental health and overall well-being. And while adopting behaviours that promote positive mental health can’t necessarily prevent mental illness (which can also have a biological component), learning about mental health and emotional well-being can help students to understand and manage the risk and protective factors that are within their control.

“Mental health exists in the context of other topics,” says Heather Gardner, Ophea’s Curriculum Consultant. “So it only makes sense to teach it using a holistic approach.” The revised, elementary (2015) and secondary (2015) H&PE curricula recognize and reflecte the complex and interconnected nature of mental health by weaving mental health topics and discussions through all grade levels and across all content in the Healthy Living strand. This integration not only supports students to better build and maintain their mental health over their teenage years, but also provides them with strategies, skills and knowledge to use well into adulthood. 

What’s new about the way Ontario schools are approaching mental health?

While mental health lessons have long been a part of H&PE, the revised curriculua are treating the subject in some new and effective ways.

Mental health topics are now woven through many subject areas...

The biggest change to the way mental health is being taught is that the subject, which was once treated as a stand-alone topic, is now being taught through all areas of the Healthy Living strand, as well as in other subject areas across the full curriculum.

“Over the past twenty years, we’ve seen a remarkable shift in the ways health is taught in schools,” comments Alyson Beben, a health educator and curriculum writer. “In the past, health education often focused on the dangers of substance use; and topics such as mental health were rarely discussed in the classroom. Now, teachers understand that the social determinants of health—which include gender, race, housing and socio-economic status among many others—significantly affect the health of any person, and that schools and communities have an important role in health promotion.”

By coming to understand how the topic is related to all areas of their lives, students are now learning that mental health is much more than the absence of mental illness. “Mental health involves a healthy balance of all aspects of life—physical, intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual,” comments Gardner. “A person with good mental health is able to think, feel, act and interact in a way that permits him or her to enjoy life while also being able to cope with challenges that arise.”

There’s a strong focus on skill-building and resilience...

The ability to bounce back from life’s challenges and changes is often called resilience. In the H&PE curriculum, resilience is fostered through the Living Skills (a set of personal, interpersonal, and critical and creative thinking skills) which are woven through all three strands at both the elementary and secondary levels. As they get active in the gym and work to build their physical literacy, students also learn how to solve problems, think critically, manage real-world situations and get along with others.

“There’s a greater emphasis not just on teaching topics but on building skills,” says Andrea Barrow, a teacher with the Limestone District School Board, a Fitness Leadership Program teacher and an Ophea trainer. “We want students to take it a step further in terms of critical thinking and apply their knowledge.”

The new curriculua work to end stigma and stereotypes...

Despite an increase in programs that promote awareness of mental illness (such as Children’s Mental Health Week, Mental Illness Awareness Week and the Bell Lets’ Talk initiative) there is still a great deal of fear and misinformation surrounding mental illness. This lack of understanding leads to stigma and stereotypes that can make people feel reluctant to seek help and can result in bullying, violence and harassment in schools and elsewhere. 

As students learn strategies for maintaining mental health, the revised curriculum also works to build their understanding and empathy related to mental illness. “The fact that mental health discussions are woven through all areas of learning gives us the opportunities to have these conversations with our students repeatedly,” points out Gardner, who reports that this not only helps students to gain a variety of knowledge in different contexts, but also helps them to see that having conversations about mental health is normal and healthy—something which goes a long way toward breaking down the stereotypes and reducing the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

The revised curriculua offer a continuum of learning...

With the release of the revised elementary and secondary curriculum (students  have a continuum of learning when it comes to Health and Physical Education—something which is especially important as students navigate complex issues like mental health and well-being in their teenage years.

Furthermore, messaging around mental health will soon reach many more secondary students. “With physical education, you’re only required to take one secondary credit to graduate,” explains Barrow. “In the old curriculum, mental health wasn’t discussed until grade eleven.” Now those important discussions will start to take place in grade nine, when most students complete their required credit.

When it comes to teaching mental health, where should you start?

First, get the facts...

Students have a wide range of experiences and information (or misinformation) related to mental health. This can make it a challenging topic to teach. However, by getting the facts and increasing your level of comfort with the topic, you can be prepared to have sensitive, open and productive discussions with students.

“We need to start with evidence,” says Tamar Meyer, Supervisor of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s (CAMH) Health Promotion Resource Centre (HPRC). “It’s important for educators and parents to know what’s going on.” This means not only understanding issues related to mental health and mental illness in general, but also figuring out what the specific needs in your area or within a specific segment of the population might be.

For example, more grade 7–12 students in the Toronto area have seriously considered suicide in the last year than their peers in the North-East and North-West have. However, 1 in 4 Toronto students have sought help from a mental health professional, while only 1 in 5 in the Northern regions did. Meanwhile, across all regions of Canada, females in the same age group are nearly twice as likely as males to report experiencing psychological distress.

These findings (and others like them) can be found in CAMH’s Ontario Student Drug Use & Health Survey,  which monitors drug use, mental health, physical health, bullying, gambling and other risk behaviours in public school students in grades 7–12. To help communicate the findings of the bi-yearly survey, CAMH HPRC in partnership with the Evidence Exchange Network has created a series of easy-to-read infographics. “Infographics are a great knowledge exchange tool that translates evidence into manageable, pieces,” says Meyer, who suggests that teachers can use them to inform their planning or to help spark discussion in the classroom.

Seek support and continued learning...

When it comes to mental health and well-being, there’s always more to learn! “We’re trying to encourage our students to be lifelong learners and participants in fitness activities,” says Barrow. “As educators, we need to model this ourselves.” Luckily, there are a range of professional development opportunities and resources available to teachers.

One such resource is Level Up —a free, web-based resource from Ophea. It supports educators and program leaders in promoting mental health and overall well-being with children and youth ages 6–18 and addresses healthy living through a variety of topics related to substance use and healthy eating. Level Up includes easy-to-use activity cards that are linked to the H&PE curriculum Living Skills expectations as well as posters and videos.

“From a simple poster challenging students to reflect on their personal choices, to a three-minute video where students respond to the decisions of the characters, to a full-out activity card, Level-Up provides the opportunity for a variety of entry points to the topic area, and a variety of opportunities for educators to cover them,” says Gardner.

Ophea has also just launched a new online resource for secondary teachers, Approaches to Teaching Healthy Living: A Guide for Secondary Educators. This comprehensive guide facilitates planning and instruction of the Healthy Living curriculum and assessment of student learning, and includes ready-to-use sample unit overviews and assessment strategies to guide teachers in planning their own units for Grade 9-12. This resource is available to teachers from school boards that have purchased access.

Another resource to check out would be Ophea’s All About H&PE, which includes tools to strengthen your understanding and knowledge of the five Fundamental Principles that underpin the H&PE curriculum. “The All About H&PE posters and videos are great to use in professional development settings, at staff meetings, to simply support individual reflection or start a conversation with a colleague or student.” says Gardner. They are very clear and concise, making understanding the integration of the Fundamental Principles into an H&PE program straightforward.

For more resources related to mental health and well-being, educators can also turn to organizations like Healthy Minds Canada, Kids Help Phone and Parent Action on Drugs or consult the Ministry of Education’s document: Supporting Minds: An Educator’s Guide to Promoting Students’ Mental Health and Well-Being.

Involve parents and other community partners...

In addition to developing healthy habits and building resilience; feeling safe, valued and included in the community are vital components of mental health. By creating a supportive social environment—not just at school, but also at home and in the larger community—we can help to ensure that students are supported in all of their environments.

“Collaboration is a fundamental part of successfully creating supportive environments for children,” says Beben. “Many anti-bullying campaigns involve school staff, students, parents and community members. And since mental health is intrinsically connected to nutrition and physical health, community leaders often organize free events that promote nutrition and get families engaged in fun, physical activities.” By way of example, Beben points to comprehensive school health initiatives like P.A.L.S. (Playground Activity Leaders in Schools), Turn off the Screens and Safe Walk/Ride to school programs.

“Educators can also work more closely with public health across the province to address student mental health and well-being and healthy weights,” suggests Meyer. “Public health units have great resources and work in partnership with schools.” Likewise, school boards have mental health leads who educators can reach out to for support.

When it comes to mental health, knowledge is power.

Fostering mental health in a generation of Ontario children is a big job—and not one that educators can (or should) tackle alone. The help of parents and community partners is essential. That said, when it comes to fostering mental health, schools have a central role to play.

“Teachers see students for six hours a day and potentially year after year,” says Gardner. “They build relationships with students as well as observe students interactions with each other. They’re able to notice changes in behaviour and communicate about these changes to parents. As well, they’re in a position to facilitate next steps with parents, community members and other teachers if required.” However, in order to properly support students, educators must first make it their business to learn all they can about mental health challenges and resources.

“Knowledge is power,” concludes Barrow. “The more we know, the more we can help our students.”

Likewise, the more students know about mental health, well-being and mental illness, the better they can help themselves and support others as they learn to navigate life’s challenges.