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In my opinion

We need to improve teachers’ mental health literacy

Faculties of education have a role to play in ensuring that teachers can identify and respond to students’ mental health challenges.


Educators spend a significant amount of time with young people, some of whom may show early signs of a mental illness, particularly during the adolescent years when most mental disorders can be diagnosed. They are often the first to observe student behaviours that may portend mental health problems and be the first to secure support for students in need. And yet we know that, while approximately 20 percent of children and youth in Canada will develop a mental illness in their lifetime, many of those who require care do not obtain rapid access to the help they require.

One of the contributing components to this dilemma is that teachers report that they don’t know how to respond to the student mental health challenges they see in schools. When the Canadian Teachers’ Federation surveyed teachers in 2012, 70 percent of respondents indicated that they had not received professional preparation in mental health education and felt unable to sufficiently understand or appropriately respond to students’ mental health needs. How can faculties of education address this gap in teacher preparation, both at the pre-service and in-service level? (Pre-service refers to a teacher candidate who has not yet finished their education training, while in-service refers to a certified, practising teacher.)

Teachers’ mental health literacy may hold the key to reversing some of the disturbing statistics related to youth mental health and improving health outcomes. Mental health literacy is defined by Stanley Kutcher and Yifeng Wei of Dalhousie University as understanding how to obtain and maintain positive mental health; knowing about mental disorders and their treatments; decreasing stigma related to mental disorders; and enhancing help-seeking efficacy. This concept underpins the work the University of British Columbia faculty of education has been undertaking, along with faculties in Western University and St. Francis Xavier University, to address this gap in teacher education and better prepare educators for today’s classrooms.

These faculties of education worked with Drs. Kutcher and Wei to co-create a freely available, flexible, online curriculum resource called TeachMentalHealth. It was piloted in a variety of delivery formats: as a mandatory online course, as a face-to-face elective and as a partial component within a required teacher education course. In addition, 27 faculties of education across Canada reviewed and provided feedback during the pilot period, identifying the importance of flexibility, modularity and ease of online use. Given the wide range of contexts in which a curriculum resource might be used, it was important to ensure that the content was based on the best available evidence, and was able to be delivered in a variety of formats depending on time availability, course requirements, and whether it was instructor-led, self-guided or other.

Several research studies have now been conducted at the pilot sites, and each attests to the significant and sustained increases in understanding about mental health and mental illness, reductions in stigma and improvement in help-seeking attitudes. Here are some of the comments from pre-service teachers about some key understandings they developed:

  • “It is important to use mental health words accurately and correctly in daily life and not to exaggerate thoughts/feelings with mental disorders like ‘depression,’ ‘anxiety’…”
  • “Stress is not always ‘bad’ for you; it is an adaptive response. How you view stress is important and can change its impacts on your health.”
  • “Be critical of studies done and jargon used to sway opinion. For example, ‘risk factor’ is often misinterpreted to mean causation.”

The development of mental health literacy as a means of equipping pre-service teachers to enter the teaching profession mirrors ongoing work at the in-service teacher level. Many provinces have undertaken professional development in mental health literacy and noted improved outcomes (increased knowledge about mental health and mental illness, reduced stigma and improved help-seeking) among students and teachers alike. In British Columbia, almost every school district has taken part in a mental health literacy trainer institute (at UBC, led by Dr. Kutcher) as part of a provincial strategy to develop mental health-literate school districts. Summer institutes of an introductory and more advanced nature are also being offered.

This professional development roll-out has been overseen by a provincial steering committee comprised of leaders from the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, school superintendents, school counsellors, principals and vice-principals, the ministry of education and ministry of mental health and addictions, BC Children’s Hospital, Foundry BC and the UBC faculty of education. Early implementation efforts in North Vancouver, for example, have shown promising outcomes among the district’s students, staff, teachers and also parents. Coordination with community health services is an essential component to providing in-time care. And, as has been noted in other provinces, such as Alberta where a similar approach has been undertaken, access to critical mental health care improves in places where mental health literacy has been widely taught.

The Association of Canadian Deans of Education takes mental health education very seriously and is dedicating a portion of its upcoming conference at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, being held in Vancouver in June, to learn what various faculties are doing to address mental health education and develop related knowledge and competencies within their teacher education programs. Preparing educators for the challenges of today’s classrooms must include introducing them to evidence-based mental health literacy as a foundation for developing knowledge and competencies that help not only the students in their care but themselves and their loved ones as well.

Mental health education affects every part of the K-12 and postsecondary education systems, and society more broadly. There is much that faculties of education can do.

Wendy Carr is a professor of teaching and senior advisor at the University of British Columbia. Blye Frank is a professor and dean of the faculty of education, also at UBC. The authors wish to acknowledge the work of their colleagues: Susan Rodger at Western University, Chris Gilham at St. Francis Xavier University, as well as Stan Kutcher and Yifeng Wei at Dalhousie University.

 Resources include the TeachMentalHealth online course for pre-service teachers, the Bringing Mental Health to Schools online course for in-service teachers, and two UBC summer institutes, which are being offered July 2-3 and July 4-5 in Vancouver. 

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  1. Harold A Maio / March 13, 2019 at 15:59

    —-We need to improve teachers’ mental health literacy

    Indeed we do: One pertinent step we can all take is to stop teaching there is a stigma to mental illnesses.

    I challenge you to do so.

    Aiding and abetting people who direct that prejudice into minds helps not at all.

  2. Fady Shanouda / March 14, 2019 at 12:42

    Were disability and mental health organizations (run by disabled and mad people) consulted in the development of this resource? I’m interested to learn how continuing to self-responsibilize mental health by responding to it with advice for increased individualization (i.e., enhancing help-seeking behaviours) helps to address the underlying conditions that are producing more experiences of mental health among young people?

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