Three teachers’ unions and a prominent youth advocacy group are urging the provincial government to bolster mental health literacy in the education curriculum and invest in additional school support workers.
In a joint letter issued to Education Minister Stephen Lecce on Monday, the groups also called on the government to include mental health or behavioural reasons as an excused absence under the Education Act. Currently, the act allows for “sickness or unavoidable causes,” but does not mention mental health explicitly.
The letter, signed by a total of nine organizations, comes amid a rising mental health crisis among Canadian youth and as experts warn of a support system “on the verge of collapse” due to a severe lack of resources.
“Young people are saying loud and clear that they are suffering and need support,” said Stephen Mensah, executive director of the Toronto Youth Cabinet (TYC), which is spearheading the campaign. “With social isolation and school closures, the impact the pandemic had on children and youth was just devastating.”
A spokesperson for Lecce’s office said they were unable to accommodate an interview with the minister ahead of publication.
“We are delivering mental health supports for students by increasing mental health funding by over 500% since 2018, including an additional $12 million investment this year,” the spokesperson added in an email statement to the Star. “Ontario has integrated mental health into our curriculum to support students, and we will continue to act to ensure every child has the tools and education they need to support their mental health and well-being.”
Mensah said he has not received an official response from the minister but is working with the ministry to plan a meeting within the next two weeks.
A TYC survey of 1,042 Ontario students between the ages of 12 to 19, published in 2022, found more than 43 per cent said their school does not have a mental health professional. As well, roughly 98 per cent of respondents said they would support mandatory mental health training for teachers and all student-facing staff.
Earlier this week, the Ford government announced it was investing $12 million in the upcoming school year to enhance services for students and “support the salaries and benefits costs” of school psychologists and social workers. The announcement did not say whether the funds will be used to hire additional staff.
While Mensah said the investments are appreciated, it’s not nearly enough to address the crisis.
“How can we have a school with over a thousand students and they only have one mental health worker, or even no mental health workers?” he said. “The issue requires unprecedented investments, not little investments here and there.”
A report published in February by the Toronto-based non-profit People for Education found the percentage of Ontario schools with no access to a psychologist has nearly doubled over the last decade.
The report, which surveyed principals at more than a thousand elementary and secondary institutions across the province, also found 91 per cent of schools required mental health support from psychologists, social workers or other specialists.
Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said union members are experiencing these challenges daily.
“Quite often, people who aren’t specialized in dealing with mental health (issues) are feeling like they need to do something because we don’t have the adequate support in the schools to meet those needs,” said Littlewood. “We want to make sure the kids have all of the supports that they need. And we’re not seeing that.”
Aisha Mahmoud, executive council president of the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, said without the appropriate, culturally-sensitive resources, it’s challenging for her peers to seek help.
“Even when the resources are available, students don’t always know where they are or how to access them,” said Mahmoud, whose organization has also signed the joint letter.
In addition to bolstering the number of resources in schools, the Grade 12 student from Hamilton, Ont. said she also wants to see more focus on mental health in the curriculum and support to ensure educators can properly deliver those lessons.
“Students start to feel really isolated or ostracized because they don’t know that what they are struggling with is normal and that they can get help,” she said.
This isn’t the first time the TYC has called on the provincial government to better support youth mental health. In 2022, the advocacy group urged Lecce to amend the Education Act and explicitly mention mental health as an appropriate reason for an excused absence.
While the ministry said at the time that mental health reasons are “considered and accepted in the same manner as other illness(es),” Mensah and Mahmoud said decoupling the two will help destigmatize mental health issues.
“Taking time off for your mental health is already kind of surrounded in guilt, shame or embarrassment,” said Mahmoud, adding that having it as a separate line in the Education Act will “validate the experiences of students.”
In response to the TYC’s initial recommendations in 2022, the ministry told the Star it planned to consult with parents and students “to identify emerging issues in student mental health.”
The ministry did not answer the Star’s questions Friday about the take-aways of those consultations and whether the government plans to amend the Education Act.
Mensah said he hopes this latest call-to-action, which is endorsed by multiple stakeholders, will compel the government to act on all the recommendations.
“My hope is that with this joint statement, where all of us stakeholders have come together, sending a clear and unified message, the government finally receives that consensus that they said they were going to seek on this issue,” he said.
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