The government of Ontario took an extraordinary step this month when it announced that mental health literacy would be a mandatory subject for Grade 10 high school students as of September, 2024, and that students in Grades 7 and 8 would be given enhanced tools for recognizing and managing mental health issues as of this fall.
It’s a first in Canada, and its impact could be as revolutionary as the introduction of mandatory sex education classes in most provinces in the last century. As such, all the provinces should be watching as Ontario rolls out its program and start thinking about doing the same.
The timing of Ontario’s move might make it seem simply like a response to the stresses caused by the lockdowns and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, an oft-cited report from Statistics Canada in April, 2020, found that just 40 per cent of Canadians aged 15 to 24 said their mental health was “excellent” or “very good,” compared with 62 per cent in 2018.
But while there’s little doubt the pandemic is accelerating an existing problem, Ontario is doing something experts have been calling on governments to do for years.
The Mental Health Commission of Canada, a non-profit body created by the Harper government in 2007, laid out in a 2013 report the rationale for formal mental-health education in schools. “An essential advantage of school programming is the opportunity to promote the positive mental health of all students rather than focusing solely on those as having mental health problems,” he wrote. “Community, school, and classroom efforts all create a culture of well-being and a sense of belonging for all students.”
It’s well known that many mental illnesses emerge between the ages of 13 and 24, making high school a critical period for educating teenagers about how to recognize the warning signs of mental illness in themselves and others; how to tell the difference between feeling sad and being depressed; how to cope with the anxieties brought on by school and society; and how to build resilience to life’s ups and downs.
Above all, it’s a critical time in a person’s life to erase the stigma associated with mental health and mental illness, by teaching kids that it’s okay to admit their problems and vulnerabilities.
Ontario is now the first province to develop mandatory teaching modules containing practical lessons in recognizing the signs of being overwhelmed, or of struggling with a mental illness. Just as important, the modules will teach kids where they can go for help in their communities.
The government is also spending money to make school-based supports for struggling students available all year, instead of forcing kids to go without in the summer.
In the longer run, it plans to make mental-health training a requirement for becoming a certified teacher in the province.
All together, this could be a life-saving initiative, one whose genesis dates back to 2017, when the 17-year-old son of Conservative MPP Natalie Pierre took his own life.
A grieving Ms. Pierre began advocating for better mental-health education in schools. In 2022, she ran for the Progressive Conservatives in Burlington, Ont., won her seat and became the catalyst for her government’s action.
“The day before he died, he took a university campus tour,” Ms. Pierre said of his son Mike on May 1, when the new curricula were announced. “He worked a few hours at his part-time job, and he got together with friends. The night before he went to a school dance. Anyone seeing him would have observed a normal healthy teenager.”
Back in 2010, a report released by the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada found that the introduction of formal high-school sex education classes in the 1980s and 1990s was a key contributor to a 36.9-per-cent reduction in teen pregnancies between 1996 and 2006.
High school can be an effective time to teach children about the facts of life, which the post-pandemic world is finally willing to acknowledge must include mental health.
It is also the right time, given the pressures and complications of growing up in the digital age.
Adding mandatory mental-health education to high-school curricula should not be a controversial or partisan issue. Ontario is taking the first steps in a badly needed reform – one that ought to be emulated in rapid fashion across the entire country.