By Kirk Winter

Dr. Patrick Smith, the National CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association, believes we are approaching the current mental health crisis in the wrong way, and believes he has a solution.

Smith stated in May of 2019 that, “most efforts to support mental health in Canada focus on treating illness and addictions, or managing symptoms rather than fostering mental health. You cannot treat your way out of a crisis. We have to get ahead of it.”

Smith believes that, “since 70 percent of all mental health problems begin in childhood and adolescence that schools should be the ideal place to promote good mental health in Canada.”

Smith shared that children today, “are living in a digital and disconnected world, many having parents with precarious work and dealing with significant stressors within the family home.”

Smith accepts that money has to be spent on hospital beds, but would rather see the bulk of that money spent on a Canada wide school based program that, would “teach empathy, tenacity and self-esteem.”

The CMHA lauds programs currently in place at schools that deal with suicide prevention, anger management, reducing stress, addressing risky behaviours and dealing with bullying. At least on a local level, these programs have been proven to work and reduce public and private sector expenditures in health care. Smith wants more of these programs in place because, “these programs are at best a patchwork, too underfunded and uncoordinated to impact a large number of people.”

The CMHA would like to see a school-based approach where all students are exposed to SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) programs. These programs are structured by mental health care experts to be delivered by teachers and they focus on the following important areas:

  1. Empathy

  2. Tenacity

  3. Self-esteem

  4. Impulse control

  5. Self-regulation

  6. Anger and stress management

  7. Identification of emotions

  8. Getting along with others

Dr. Smith said that a program like this could be made available to all school aged children in Canada, “if the federal government was prepared to increase spending on mental health programs by 2 percent.”

Smith concluded his comments by sharing, “waiting until the house is on fire is way too late to start teaching kids not to play with matches. We want to serve the entire population not just individual patients and the best mental health promotion strategy begins with programming in Canadian schools.”

Despite Dr. Smith’s advocacy for this program, many in the educational community feel acutely uncomfortable being asked to deliver mental health curriculum that might be better provided by health care professionals or parents. Teachers already feel overburdened by all the differing tasks they are expected to take on outside the scope of the regular delivery of content, and in some school jurisdictions there has been significant push back from educators regarding the delivery of these self-care programs. This has caused school boards to look for alternative delivery vehicles like public health nurses to impart this important material.

Smith will also have to have a meeting of the minds with 12 different provincial and territorial Ministries of Education to see what would have to be removed from the current curriculum to ensure time was found for the delivery of SEL programming.

Only time will tell if the CMHC can get all its ducks in a row so they can roll out this unique and interesting program.