School mental health leaders on job
In supporting the Ontario Government’s comprehensive Mental Health and Addictions Strategy, the Ministry of Education provided funding for both local school boards to hire mental health leaders.
And while the initiative began with 15 schools during a pilot project two years ago, the two boards here now are getting started with their mental health leaders beginning their positions this fall.
“The mental health leader is responsible for co-ordinating and implementing a board mental health and addictions strategy that is pretty comprehensive,” explained Rick Boisvert, director of education for the local Catholic board.
“The things they are looking to do, besides developing the broad plan, is to make sure schools are good at developing conditions to effectively support mental health issues,” he noted.
“Part of that is awareness of staff about what mental health is. And then beyond that, it’s implementing and monitoring and promoting prevention programs within the board.”
Jaeger said the position, currently a one-year contract, likely will change over time given the initiative is just getting started locally.
“Right now why they brought me on board is to do some relationship building with the board, with schools, the staff, and the teachers, and really get everyone on the same page when it comes to mental health issues,” she remarked.
“That will involve
developing a common language, so we’re all talking about the same things, seeing where our strengths are in the board, as well where we might be lacking, and try to build on those strengths and further develop where the weaknesses are.”
Jaeger said that may include getting together with community agencies and other stakeholders to bring them in and get them to play a part in helping to improve the students’ mental health.
“This first year, [we’ll] take a look at our schools, our board, and identify what we are doing well [and] if there are any gaps in services in relation to student mental health and well-being,” echoed Irwin-Gardner.
“And then by the end of the school year have a board mental health strategy,” she added.
From there, she said they’ll move into selecting and implementing evidence-supported programs for students.
“I’ll be collaborating with the board and community partners to promote a clear and integrated access to service because right now there are some gaps,” Jaeger admitted.
“Once we figure out what those are, we want to work together to make sure our students and their families can access any services that they need quickly and seamlessly.”
With only just a few weeks on the job, both agreed the initiative in just in its early stages.
“The key phrase I’ve been hearing is you have to go slow to go fast,” Jaeger reasoned.
“I think we’ll start seeing the results about three years down the road.”
So far, Jaeger said she’s been reading a lot of resources that have been provided from School Mental Health ASSIST (Awareness, Strategy, Selection, and Implementation Support Team).
She also has spent time meeting and discussing with mental health leaders from other school boards.
“I’ve been learning about what they’ve been done, things that they have found helpful, things they have found difficult—learning from those that have walked to path,” Jaeger said.
She noted the job also will focus on education.
“We’re going to be educating the board, the principals, the vice-principals, the teachers, the parents, [and] the students all on mental health issues, so that there is less stigma, they know where to go when they need help, and they have a better understanding for their fellow student or family who may be having these issues,” she explained.
But both stressed their role does not focus on working directly with students.
“I’m building the foundation so everyone is on board, there’s lots of support, and we have a common understanding of what mental health issues there are for our students,” Jaeger said.
“From there, we pull in these community agencies that are good at offering that support, and have them help the kids and do the direct face-to-face stuff.”
But Irwin-Gardner said they will be there as a resource for teachers.
“They can contact me, and I will help where if I can or get them in touch with someone who can,” she noted.
The pair will be meeting with other mental health leaders from across the province once a month.
“We’re the last ones to be phased in, which is nice because we can feed on the experience of the two groups before us who have already figured out what works and what doesn’t,” Jaeger reasoned.
“There’s a lot of sharing and networking going on,” she added. “You are not coming in here and doing it all by yourself—there is a lot of support.”
Jaeger said their meetings have focused on how to best implement a mental health strategy and how to create the best conditions you can for effective school mental health.
School Mental Health ASSIST also has provided the leaders with mental health awareness literacy materials they can pass on to local schools.
Jaeger and Irwin-Gardner, meanwhile, are starting to visit area schools so teachers and staff know who they are.
“I’ve been getting myself out there—attending staff meetings, being introduced to principals, teachers,” Jaeger noted, adding she then hopes to branch out and begin making herself known to parents.
“I always really enjoyed working in the schools,” she said, noting at one time she had provided counselling in the high school in Dryden.
“I really felt good about making that difference and seeing them improve their lives.
“To me, this was just an opportunity to do that across the board,” she continued. “Not just help one person at a time, but to help a number of people.”
“I think that any areas of our communities, schools, that can gain support for mental health and well-being issues is a fantastic step,” echoed Irwin-Gardner.
“So I’m happy to be here doing this work.”
Both said they see the importance of a mental health strategy for children and youth.
“One-in-five young people will cope with a mental health issue at some point, and schools have that unique opportunity to see kids every day and to be part of the positive change for them,” Irwin-Gardner remarked.
“Early intervention can change course for a lot of people,” she stressed.
“A huge part of mental health in schools is a reduction of stigma because it has been recognized as a huge barrier for access to service.”
“Mental health is a big focus and it’s long overdue to be a focus because our mental health and well-being impacts every aspect of our lives,” agreed Jaeger, adding something like stress is beginning to happen to students a lot earlier than before—perhaps due to such issues as cyber-bullying.
“People who don’t have those tools to cope are going to turn to coping techniques that aren’t that healthy—drinking, drugs, or self-harm,” she warned.
“If we can get in the schools early and teach them some ways to be resilient, when stress comes along, maybe they’ll be able to avoid a lot of that.”
Boisvert agreed mental health and addictions is a significant issue.
“It is a broader issue and part of the conversation is the broader community conversation, as well,” he noted.
“So having these mental health leaders is something that is really, really positive.”