It is well accepted that we have a crisis in children’s mental health in Ontario. Children’s Mental Health Ontario (CMHO) reports that the number of children waiting for mental health services in Ontario has almost doubled in the past three years and an 18 month wait list for services is common. Parents and professionals regularly tell me that children can wait up to 3 years for treatment.

The consequences are felt all across the province. There’s been a 54% increase in visits to the emergency department and a 60% increase in hospitalizations for children with mental health issues. This further stresses an already over-taxed health care system.

And it shows up in the classroom. CMHO chief executive officer Kimberly Moran said “When one child has a mental health issue in the classroom it has a profound effect on the other kids … When kids are waiting sometimes up to two years for treatment, imagine the impact in the classrooms, with their teachers, as they wait for treatment, it just doesn’t make sense”. Educators would agree.

One of the most obvious consequences is an increase in violent incidents in schools. Three-quarters of teachers feel unsafe in the classroom and 60% of teachers are the victims of violence but don’t report it. And those are the adults in the room. The effects on students and student learning are significant.

Schools can’t fix this problem alone, but it’s essential that they are a major part of addressing this crisis. So it was initially reassuring to see Education Minister Mitzie Hunter announce a $49 million program to “boost the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of Ontario students, and help make schools inclusive, safe, and welcoming learning environments”.

But surprisingly, mental health supports for students wasn’t front and centre for this “well-being” initiative. With a crisis in mental health where educators and students are getting hurt and learning is being effected The Ministry chose not to put mental health first. What’s more important than student mental health?

Active transportation. Yup, me neither. I had to look it up.

OK. But mental health is probably second then. Nope. “…local well-being priorities, including school breakfast programs, bullying prevention, recreational activities, and staff professional development.” All very good and important programs, but a higher priority than mental health?

Eventually, on the bottom half of the announcement, there is a mention of mental health. Increased staffing to support students with mental health issues? Nope, not that either. “School Mental Health ASSIST – a provincial support team that provides leadership, resources, and other support” will be receiving more funding.

So during a time of crisis, as students are suffering and educators are getting hurt, the ministry’s new well-being program is more focussed on funding active transportation and breakfast programs than providing front line support to children with mental health needs. In fact the major initiative to address student mental health is a provincial support team that doesn’t work directly with students. Unacceptable.

What should The Minister have done?

  1. Put a mental health professional in every school. When a child in an elementary school is in crisis, there is no one in that school to support them. How about a Child and Youth Worker in every school? How about going back to funding guidance teachers who can work with students who need help?
  2. Ensure that children with mental health needs have better connections to places where they can receive support in the community. Currently it’s a confusing mess for students and parents to navigate. We should be making it easy for families in crisis to get help.
  3. Make children’s mental health a central feature of school community hubs. make it easier for families to receive support and students to receive treatment by having treatment organizations have offices in every school.

The biggest and best way to address the issue of child mental health is by transforming our school system. To move away from a system based on achievement and grades and toward one focussed more on learning. It’s the ultimate exercise in doublespeak to say you are concerned about the well-being of students and then force them to participate in a system which contributes to those stresses and strains.

The current approach seems to be to require students to write EQAO but teach them to breathe mindfully or use a fidget object while doing it. Here’s a thought…why not just exempt students with mental health issues from EQAO? Send a strong clear message to students that mental health is more important that achievement or test scores.

Active transportation and “recreational activities” won’t address the crisis in student mental health. What will help is creating a system that actually cares about the well-being of students. A Ministry that puts students first and funds a system that has their overall well-being as it’s number one priority. Only then can we feel that we’re doing what we can to responsibly respond to this crisis.