Trigger warning: self-harm, suicide

Elizabeth Baker was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in her first year of university, but it was in Grade six that she first thought about self-harm.  

Baker attended Good Shepherd Catholic Elementary School from 2003 to 2009. She says she does not remember the school teaching about mental illnesses or mental health. She feels this will influence her for the rest of her life.

The first time Baker learned about mental health was in her Grade 9 health class, at age 14.

“I remember feeling kind of weird,” she says. “It was the first time I’d heard of it, and it was all kind of scary stuff.”

But the introduction to this education was late in Baker’s experience with mental illness. She was in Grade 10 when her self-harm hit a peak. 

“I found that when I started to get angry or upset about anything, I didn’t know how to cope with it,” she says. “That’s why I turned to self-harm.”

Baker’s experience reflects an important lesson – culture without early mental health education can leave youth isolated and confused. They may not know what they are experiencing or how to reach out for help. Baker is also an example of the generational gap in mental health education. Her parents were not understanding when it came to mental illness. In high school, the only teacher she confided in then told her parents. Feeling judged and isolated, Baker decided to keep her mental health issues secret.

“Elementary schools need to prepare students for what they’re going to face and the different people they’re going to meet and the issues they’re going to go through. There needs to be some discussion.”

In an article exploring how education should be taught in Canadian schools, psychiatrist Stanley Kutcher says that mental health should be introduced in Grade 8, as that is when most mental disorders begin to manifest.

Yet, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association of Toronto, suicide is the second leading cause of death for Canadians between the ages of 10 – when children in Ontario are in Grade 4 – and 24.

Canadian psychiatrist Alexa Bagnall reported that adolescents who seek help often know very little about mental illness. A BMC Public Health study found that mental health was a factor in 24 per cent of teenagers who dropped out of high school. One of the largest factors in this are high rates of anxiety and a lack of understanding on healthy methods of dealing with stress.

Full-time elementary school students spend around 195 days per year in school. At around six hours every day, at least 13 per cent of a child’s life is spent in school every year. Discussing mental health in classrooms will allow the normalization of mental health discussion, rather than isolating and addressing only the individual who experiences mental health issues. These students then grow to create a culture of adults that are educated and comfortable with mental health.

School boards across Ontario are now realizing the importance of early mental health education.  Ontario Shores has begun funding a curriculum in the Durham Region aimed at increasing awareness about mental illnesses. Their goal is to expand this curriculum across the rest of Ontario.

In 2011, the Government of Ontario released Open Minds, Healthy Minds: Ontario’s Comprehensive Mental Health and Addictions Strategy, which introduced more mental health programming, tailored from childhood to old age. The implementation of their plan began with early intervention and support for children and youth in Ontario. It required school boards across Ontario to create specific mental health action plans.

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) created a 30-page five-year plan in 2013, following a survey they had released the year before. In the survey, staff identified that a stronger approach to mental health was necessary for the students’ well being. Their plan aims to help educators recognize when students are experiencing distress and how to support them in their pathway to better mental health. It also gives suggestions on how to discuss mental health with parents and students at both the elementary and secondary level to maintain the support throughout education.

The Durham District School Board (DDSB) released a 36-page five-year plan in 2013. The plan was implemented in support of the board’s decisions to implement first aid in mental health, fight stigma, and establish a mental health committee by partnering with mental health organizations. By June 2013, the school board planned for each elementary and secondary school to have at least one staff member trained in mental health first aid.

But Baker’s elementary school, Good Shepherd Catholic Elementary School, is in the Durham Catholic District School Board. The school board’s action plan, released in 2014, is only eight pages long with no lesson plans or outlines.

Baker says if mental health had been addressed earlier, she “would like to think maybe things would have been different.”