The words we use matter

When we talk about “mental health,” some people think about serious mental illnesses and disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. But we should all strive for good mental health – it means we are flourishing! Mental well-being encourages individuals to explore, take healthy risks, overcome adversity and contribute to the world around them.

Associations such as School Mental Health ASSIST believe that mental health is more than just the absence of illness. Well-being can be enhanced and nurtured through positive mental health promotion and illness prevention. Schools are excellent places to build the skills, attitudes, knowledge and habits that support mental well-being for all students.

So, what is mental health?

This brief video from the Health Promotion Resource Centre at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health offers a “shared language” for talking about mental health and well-being.

The framework explains that this balance is enhanced when people feel like their lives have a purpose, they have hope for their future, they feel a sense of belonging and connectedness, and they understand how their lives have meaning and are part of the larger world and a rich history. The language we use when talking about mental health does matter.

Mental health is for everyone

Mental health is a positive state of flourishing – and it belongs to everyone! When students are mentally healthy, they feel happy, safe and cared for. They are ready to learn.

To illustrate how mental health looks for various students, we use the organizing principle of tiers. Tier 1 refers to all students, Tier 2 refers to some students and Tier 3 refers to a few students. The three tiers can be considered as follows when approaching mental illness prevention and mental health promotion and intervention:

Tier 1

All kids benefit when they develop skills that help them navigate life’s challenges and opportunities. These skills can be taught by parents, coaches, faith leaders and peers, but research shows that school can also successfully teach and model these important skills. Schools can teach – in a structured and systematic way – skills such as how to solve problems, resolve conflict, make decisions, find help and cope with stress. We know from research that this type of social-emotional learning also improves academic performance. It’s clear that mental well-being matters for all students.

Tier 2

While all students benefit from learning the skills, attitudes, knowledge and habits associated with well-being, students at risk of developing mental health problems need more help. Sometimes students are genetically predisposed to a mental health problem (for example, if they have a family history of bipolar disorder). Sometimes mental health difficulties arise from chronic or acute circumstances.

Mental health problems are associated with the social determinants of health – the things that make us healthy, or not – such as poverty, discrimination and education. Without support, some students are likely to struggle with school performance, social relationships, future opportunities and more. This is why it is important to identify students who are at risk early – and to provide extra support to help them along the way.

Tier 3

Some students need even more support. One in five students in Canada suffers from problems that interfere with daily academic, social and emotional functioning. We may see these problems in disruptive behaviour, anger and truancy, or students may experience these problems inwardly, making them hard to detect. Students who are clinically anxious or depressed may withdraw from school life, quickly escalating their problems. Sometimes, mental health problems are life threatening – and the statistics about youth suicide in Canada are troubling.

Fortunately, we can help. Vulnerable students need more intensive intervention, at school and in community or hospital settings. Caring educators can help vulnerable students to, from and through the services they need.

School Mental Health-ASSIST Staff

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