Wellness from coast to coast to coast (July 11)

By Bernie Froese-Germain

Increased collaboration and coordination between the education and health sectors are key ingredients in working towards greater wellness in our schools. This was one of several themes cutting across the presentations.

According to Janice Graham-Migel (Canadian Counselling & Psychotherapy Association), one of the ways wellness challenges are being addressed in Nova Scotia schools is through programs such as the Comprehensive Guidance & Counselling Program and the Comprehensive School Health Program. She stressed the important role of distributed leadership and collaboration in these programs, noting that “schools cannot meet the challenges alone so it is necessary to tap into the collective wealth of expertise that is available in the broader community.”

A perspective on mental health and francophone minorities was given by Caroline Vézina (La Société Santé en français). Over 200,000 francophone Canadians living in minority settings suffer from a mental disorder every year. As language plays a key role in analysing personal experiences and speeding recovery, language barriers can have a negative impact on healthcare access and quality of care – “When I’m sick, my bilingualism is the first thing to go”. She stressed the need for school- and community-based mental health initiatives across Canada which place youth front and centre. Cooperation is at the heart of this approach – working in silos is a thing of the past.

Research findings on student mental health and well-being were presented by Myles Ellis (CTF). In a survey of nearly 4,000 teachers conducted by CTF in collaboration with the MHCC in 2012, teachers told us that numerous barriers exist to the provision of mental health services for students including an insufficient number of school-based mental health professionals. Most teachers also believe that stigma and discrimination pose a major barrier to getting students the mental health services they need. While teachers feel they are part of the solution, they expressed a need more assistance in the schools by mental health professionals whose expertise would complement that of teachers.

The role of employee assistance programs (EAP) in assisting people with mental health problems was the subject of presentations by Czar François (Solerah) and Gail Enever (OTIP). EAP utilization rates around the western world are approx. 4-5% when 20% of Canadians suffer from mental health issues. In the education sector EAP utilization rates are approx. double at 11%. The stigma associated with mental illness can lead to discomfort about speaking with an employer about a mental health problem; people believe it will block career advancement. EAP awareness is critical to program effectiveness – awareness campaigns to train managers to spot signs of mental health problems and approaches to combatting stigma need to be part of any EAP program.

(Bernie Froese-Germain is a researcher with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation)

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