UBC’s associate dean of teacher education, Wendy Carr, has made it her mission to help educators play an important role in addressing a national mental-health crisis.
“We know that a good portion of these mental disorders are detectable in the adolescent years,” Carr told the Straight by phone. “Teachers at that level, in particular, can play a role if their mental-health literacy is developed.”
To that end, the UBC faculty of education has jointly prepared a learning resource for teacher candidates with experts at St. Francis Xavier University, the University of Western Ontario, and Dalhousie University.
Carr said the resource covers four broad areas: understanding mental health, understanding mental disorders, reducing stigma, and learning where and how teachers can seek help for themselves and others. This English-language curriculum is free and is available online for preservice teachers across Canada.
“We’re just putting the finishing touches on the online platform,” she said. “They can do it as part of a program in some universities. They can also do it as a self-guided set of teaching and learning resources. This helps them develop their mental-health literacy even if they don’t have it as part of their teacher-education program.”
Carr explained that it has emerged out of work that UBC academics have been engaged in with Dalhousie researcher and psychiatrist Dr. Stan Kutcher, a leading authority on youth mental health.
Kutcher is leading a self-guided online course that provides educators with insights into mental-health issues affecting students in grades 8 to 10.
“Numerous studies conducted nationally and globally have reported that this mental-health-literacy resource has improved outcomes for both teachers and for students,” Kutcher said in a video accompanying the release of the curriculum resource. “In fact, it’s the only program with solid research evidence developed in Canada and available for Canadian educators.”
The Canadian Mental Health Association estimates that more than three million Canadians between the ages of 12 and 19 are at risk of suffering from depression. According to a report to the Mental Health Commission of Canada in 2011, mental illness imposes a $51-billion burden on the country every year.
Carr is hoping that policymakers will recognize that equipping teachers with the tools to recognize problems in the classroom will not only save lives and improve health outcomes but also pay economic dividends.
She noted that there is a grant application to have the resources translated into French so it would be available to francophone teacher candidates in Quebec.
“There are lots of things that teachers can notice much earlier than a health professional or a parent,” Carr said. “It’s not their job to diagnose or to become a go-to caregiver; it’s their job to help that student find help. That’s learning about what’s available in the school system, what’s available in the community, and how to mobilize those for the sake of the student.”
The learning resource offers teacher candidates insights into a broad range of issues, including psychosis, depression, and human brain development. Through case studies, teacher candidates also learn to pay attention to behavioural changes, even subtle ones such as gradual withdrawal or a decline in personal grooming.
While the focus is on mental-health literacy regarding students in the secondary years, the associate dean said there’s a stronger emphasis on social and emotional learning for teacher candidates who plan on working at the elementary level.
“We’re not training psychiatrists or health professionals,” Carr emphasized. “We’re trying to develop some understandings of a basic nature, with the sense that there is so much more to know and so much more to learn. And hence the need to reach out to professionals who are fully trained in this area.”
She noted that one of the biggest barriers to seeking help is the stigma associated with mental illness, which this learning resource tackles head-on. There’s no shame in someone with diabetes taking regular medication, she stated, so why should it be any different for someone suffering from depression?
While a great deal of attention is focused on commercial approaches and products to improve mental health, Carr said that research “quite conclusively shows that exercise and music have a far greater effect”.
It’s something worth thinking about in light of the Vancouver school board eliminating the district’s band and strings program.More