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Jan. 18, 2016

Eating disorders, psychotic behaviours, anxiety, and suicide.

These don’t sound like topics that classroom teachers would need to know about, but they do.

Student mental health is a rising subject in classrooms across the country, causing teachers and support staff to seek training and resources to address the issue. A 2012 national survey conducted by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation found that almost 70% of educators surveyed reported not having received professional development in the area of student mental health.

This statistic is one that Carolyn FitzGerald, coordinator of Laurier’s Mental Health Issues in the Classroom certificate, is trying to change – one teacher at a time.

FitzGerald, who holds graduate degrees in clinical psychology and teaches in Laurier’s Faculty of Education, co-developed the certificate to address the shortfall in professional development opportunities in student mental health. The certificate, launched in January 2014, is the first of its kind in Ontario.

“Mental distress significantly impacts students’ ability to participate in school, from both an academic and social perspective,” said FitzGerald. “We can’t expect teachers to support student learning effectively if they don’t have the necessary tools to recognize a student who is struggling with mental health issues.”

Educating teachers about the signs of a student dealing with a possible mental health issue, providing appropriate teaching and learning strategies, understanding Ontario’s mental health system, and empowering teachers to develop a classroom culture that supports positive mental health practices are just a few of FitzGerald’s goals for her certificate students.

Alysa Vanka, an elementary teacher in Brantford, completed the certificate in May, 2015. Vanka finds that today’s youth are struggling with more than just grades.

“This course has opened my eyes to the many struggles our students face as well as how their illnesses affect their abilities to function in the classroom,” said Vanka. “Working through the certificate, I feel much better prepared to meet the needs of my students, both academically and emotionally.”

Tracy Eagle, an educational assistant with the Grand Erie and Halton boards who completed the certificate alongside Vanka, agrees.

“I have seen kids struggling with anxiety, depression, emotional dis-regulation, and suicidal ideation. Mental health greatly impacts their daily functioning and can have a significant effect on their school attendance and performance.”

Eagle finds it crucial to understand the predisposing and underlying factors of a mental health issue, as it provides her with a window into what a student may be dealing with.

“Although teachers cannot involve themselves in a therapeutic relationship with their students, if they had basic tools and increased knowledge they would be better able to understand and support their students,” she said.

FitzGerald was hoping her certificate students would come away with that understanding.

“This learning experience, designed specifically for non-mental health professionals like today’s teachers, will give them some foundational knowledge to work with,” said FitzGerald.

The certificate program graduated 18 teachers from its first cohort in May, 2015. A second cohort is currently underway. Additional details on the certificate, including registration information, can be found on the Centre for Teaching Innovation and Excellence website.

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