When it comes to mental health in Canada, the gap is still too wide

The story of Clement Gascon, the Supreme Court Justice who bravely went public this week about his mental health struggles is a story we should all pay attention to.

Last week the Justice disappeared for a few hours after suffering a panic attack brought on by a change in medication and the stressors of his job. Thankfully, in this case, this story had a relatively happy ending. He was found and embraced by his community and has received nothing but support since the incident.

Today, the Globe and Mail’s editorial, In Canada, the mental-health gap continues, picked up the story and used this as an occasion to shine a light on the problems that still exist here in Canada when it comes to treatment for mental health issues.

The gaps are significant and go well beyond what is reported in the editorial.

The World Health Organization reports that in low- and middle-income countries, between 76% and 85% of people with mental disorders receive no treatment for their disorder. In high-income countries, between 35% and 50% of people with mental disorders are in the same situation. In today’s Globe and Mail article, a 2016 joint statement on access to mental-health care from the Canadian Medical Association and Canadian Psychiatric Association estimated that, of the 20 per cent of Canadians who suffer from a disorder, fewer than one in three will seek treatment.

Many can’t seek treatment. Unless you are fortunate to have a very good health plan, counselling, which can be as expensive as $200 an hour, is out of reach. Even the medication which really helps people to focus on talk therapy is out of reach for many.

It is good however that at least attitudes are changing. In my own case, my admissions of struggling with anxiety and depression were met with stony silence. I remember actually admitting to a superintendent that my condition could easily be exaggerated by undue stress. She was happy to add the stress but ignored my clear message that this could do harm. For me, this was an unforgivable misstep for someone in a position of authority.

In Canada, we need to realize that the gaps in treatment are wide unless you are well off and well connected. I have been extremely fortunate because I have friends in the medical system and a great drug plan. Most, however, are nowhere near as lucky.

As an administrator, I came in contact with many children and adults who needed really good mental health care. It was rare that they received it and I don’t know how they survived. In a society as rich as ours, there is absolutely no reason why anyone has to suffer from the silent killer of mental illness.

We are, unfortunately, at a downturn in compassion in our society right now. We are going through one of those awful cycles where the artificial budgetary bottom line reigns supreme. This is tragic and people with untreated mental health illnesses will suffer even more than most during these times.

It is really too bad that we need stories like Justice Gascon to remind us how terribly many people suffer in silence. We are a superficial society that rarely takes the time to consider the real suffering of others.

I am happy for Justice Gascon. I am grateful for the wonderful assistance and support I have received from family and professionals. I worry about the many parents and children who suffer in obscurity and I really hope for the day when we point our priorities firmly in the right direction.

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Why I have Trouble with the Self-Regulation Movement

Yesterday I happened to pick up on a story on the CBC’s The Sunday Edition. Just like the Globe and Mail and other media sources, the issue of increasing violence in the classroom was being highlighted. I retweeted the story and we listened to the episode.

It is an important story. It is a frustrating one as well because no one in positions of real authority seems to be listening. What might surprise people is the fact that the problem of violence is most pronounced in elementary schools. On top of that, these incidents of violence go largely unreported.

These were the results of an online survey conducted for the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario in relation to the 2016-17 school year. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

The article attached to the Sunday Edition episode includes an upsetting statistic:

Results from ETFO’s members showed only 22 per cent of teachers said they would report cases of verbal or physical violence, and less than a quarter said steps were taken to prevent future incidents.

The report continued by stating that many teachers felt that no change would take place so why bother reporting?

As a former elementary administrator, I understand their reluctance to report. People at the most senior levels of school boards are not comfortable with this kind of information and they have no answers for teachers who have to deal with violence in the classroom.

I am not making this up. Schools are generally on their own when it comes to violent incidents, especially at the elementary level. To complain does not do any good; you are reminded to rely on the resources you already have.  These resources continue to be cut back all the time. High schools have more specialized programming and more support staff. Elementary schools have the principal, a resource teacher, and the all-important educational assistant staff. That’s all.

One comment on my retweet struck me.

While I respect what Lisa was saying here, her comment misses the point. I am sure the teachers talking on Sunday Morning are good teachers trying very hard to do their best. Learning about self-regulation would not change what is going on in their classrooms.

I do think self-regulation is useful. It is always useful to learn about what motivates people and it is very healthy to acquire a deeper sense of self-knowledge. Most ancient religions are based on ideas of developing a deep sense of self.

There is a danger with a reliance on any one system of belief and the danger here is that we are really pushing the idea that the violence in schools could somehow be solved if teachers were just a bit better trained. The problem with this approach is this – the system will never be improved by political pressure or social advocacy, therefore, change must be on the backs of educators. Nothing else will change so we need to be the change.

This is why, I think, self-regulation is so popular amongst senior administrators and some consultants.  We are taking an ancient idea and asking educators to become agents of personal transformation. If educators are the only agents of change there is little need to call for the resources we truly need to make our system more effective, more humane and more peaceful.

Social change is hard to do and hard to understand. It is easier to give up on change and get teachers to take up the mantle.

That is why I am uncomfortable about waving the flag of self-regulation in front of the angry school.

I know there will be blowback against what I am writing but I want to be clear. I am an advocate for educators. I have seen the struggle they go through every day and I have dealt with my fair share of very violent incidents in elementary schools, some so dangerous that parts of our building had to be cleared to keep students and educators safe.

I also understand self-regulation. I have listened to and read really good material on self-regulation and acquiring self-knowledge and have undergone my own very painful journeys to understand myself and those around me. Yes, self-regulation is important for everyone – no it will not solve the problems experienced by educators in our schools today.

My point is simple – don’t put school reform on the backs of the educator. Self-regulation is simply not a panacea, it is one tool to help educators better understand themselves and their students. We are relying on this movement too much and it is crowding out the necessary conversation we need to be having on how schools can better serve students, parents and educators.

Let’s focus on a system that needs to be changed, let’s broaden the conversation.

Responses to Education Election Issues: Are we creating the optimum learning environment for our students?

Over the past two weeks, I have been collecting ideas and suggestions on what needs to change in Ontario’s education system. Clearly, there are lots of issues that are on the minds of voters and it would be great to see some of these important ideas debated during the current campaign.

Obviously, some issues are overrepresented by people who really have a bone to pick – Regulation 274 being one – but we can still get a sense of what some of the major concerns are, none have to do with returning to a ‘kill and drill’ math curriculum.

So what are some of the big issues?

School safety and mental health are related issues. There are several comments on the need for better mental health supports in schools and for the need to protect students and staff from violent outbursts. The safety of students and current class sizes comes into this. One respondent wrote that they did not feel that having potentially 36 students in a kindergarten class was safe for their child.

I think you could wrap all this into one overall issue – the quality of care in the classroom. Do we have enough support for children in our schools and are we creating the optimum learning environment for our students? Are schools really equipped to adequately deal with mental health challenges and the complex needs of children?

I don’t have a good answer to this question, but it is certainly asked a lot in the survey.

My daughter was supposed to be entering JK in the Fall and we’ve chosen not to enrol her, because 36 kids stuffed into a play-based program with limited resources and objects being thrown at the teacher’s head is not my idea of a good learning environment for ANY child. It fills me with sadness that as a public school teacher I don’t feel safe enrolling my own child in my local public school.

This is actually something that can happen. When we had half-day kindergarten, there was a hard cap of 20 students in the classroom. If you went over 20 students, there was a good chance that another class would have to be created. That cap really disappeared once we went to full-day kindergarten. Sometimes you will be able to split a class of 32 to 36 children into two classes, but there is no guarantee that this will happen and if it does take place it is usually a month into the school year.

Yes, there are other issues that need to be addressed based on this survey. EQAO, teacher hiring practices, the overlap caused by funding Catholic and Public schools, EQAO etc. But let’s start with this issue. Are we doing our very best to ensure a high-quality environment inside the classroom? Are we living with less?

If we could be doing better for our students in very concrete ways why are we not doing this? Why are more educators not saying anything? This is the time for debate, let’s hear more from parents and educators in our province.

People Respond: Education Issues in the Ontario 2018 Election

 

We are heading into an election here in Ontario. I am always really interested in election debates, especially how the discussion circles around education issues.

So far, we seem to be talking about sex education and how we need to return to some other time when parents and the church were the arbitars of essential information.

Oh yes, and there is the old rallying cry – back to math basics!!

Can we do better than that? Are there other issues that we should be discussing?

Really, we only get a chance to do this every four years and public education is vital to the maintenance of democracy. Actually, we need democracy to flourish and we have to step up and declare how our schools can best do this. At its heart, that is what education is all about.

So, I am conducting my own little survey. What are the issues that are important to you? Especially if you are an educator, what should we be talking about as we lead up to June 7th?

We only get to do this once every four years so it would be great to weigh in and record your answer.

Let’s let this survey run and see what we come up with. I will summarize the answers in this blog.

Let’s use this time wisely – just so you know, you can fill this survey out as many times as you want!

After five days, people are beginning to respond. Here are some of the issues that people are writing about:

Why are we publically funding Catholic educational schools and no other religious educational schools?
Standardized testing.
Class sizes (especially kindergarten) and resulting violence and behaviour issues.
Mental health support
Violence in the classroom

On Twitter there are more comments

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We need to see this kind of discussion, these are essential issues and it is really important that politicians listen and respond to these comments.

Each of these points deserves to be addressed, no matter how uncomfortable it makes politicians.

Publically funding only one religion in a publically funded school system is blatant discrimination and against the Human Rights Act of the Province of Ontario. Catholicism should not be promoted as the major religion in Ontario, and yet it continues to be provincially funded as such. Why?

The money spent on EQAO from start to finish, as well as release time for staff, could be put to better use in teacher training, lower PTR, resources and engaging families to support learning. There is little research backing the educational benefits of standardized tests. But they have to be replaced with what does work and in an equitable way.

My daughter was supposed to be entering JK in the Fall and we’ve chosen not to enrol her, because 36 kids stuffed into a play-based program with limited resources and objects being thrown at the teacher’s head is not my idea of a good learning environment for ANY child. It fills me with sadness that as a public school teacher I don’t feel safe enrolling my own child in my local public school.

Because students with and without learning disabilities, with and without strong home support, with and without basic math skills and reading skills….everyone may at some point in their school career need mental health support. Our part time counsellor is a former EA with little training. She is trained to support children with small grief issues, or those how need help with social interactions or managing their parent’s divorce. Instead, she is spending all of her time supporting kids with some really big mental health challenges. There isn’t anyone else who can support them at school. We need full time counsellors, even in elementary schools

Many occasions of violence towards other students and staff with no consequences

This is becoming a really long post, but it is important. There is a lot of excellent information here and I hope someone takes a look. All of these are issues that have caught the public’s eye in the past. Collectively, they are a call to take a hard look at our current system and seek out ways to make it better and more responsive to the concerns of parents and educators in our province.

We can do so much better than a few sound bites about ‘new math’.

Update – the responses to the survey continue – you can go to this summary to see what people are writing

Of all the issues what are the most important? You can have your say here

What Brings you Joy?

Driving back from Montreal on a beautiful afternoon. What brings you Joy?

It is important to always reflect on what brings you Joy. This was a particularly challenging work week, we all have them and these are the times to reflect on the positive. This may sound a bit trite, but that is how things need to go. Staying mired in the negativity engendered by some organizations doesn’t help you at all.

Look for the things in your work and life that give you joy. For me, this was a particularly wonderful interview we did for a radio broadcast we do on a regular basis. The show is called First Hand Stories and this interview was done with Chris Nihmey, a mental health advocate here in Ottawa.

Chris has an important message for all of us and he displays the courage to talk about his story to school children and the general public whenever he can. Radio is a great way to communicate ideas, sometimes stilted by email, Twitter, blogs and Facebook. It is a great creative endeavour that brings lots of joy. Our time with Chris was magical and we feel so privileged to have had some time with him to discuss such an important topic.

Here is the interview.

If you want to learn more about the work Chris is doing, you can check out his website here.

The interview is a very small part of the wonderful burst of creativity that comes out daily from Voiced Radio. I have written about Stephen Hurley and the wonderful collection of broadcasters he continues to collect under his banner. Stephen really has something going. He really gets Joy. We are totally dedicated to Voiced Radio, not just because it is an incredibly creative project, but because it is always such a positive experience.

There is no bureaucratic malaise here, no negativity, no limiting hand that slaps you down, just a positive creative pulse that sustains and provides inspiration.

What brings Joy?

Working with accepting people who appreciate your work and the time devoted to creative projects.

There are so many other organizations that really could learn a lesson from this. Do those you work with create Joy?

A photo with Chris Nihmey after our First Hand Stories interview.

 

The Stigma Surrounding Mental Health in the World of Education

There is a stigma attached to posts on mental health. People are afraid to deal with mental health issues. On Twitter, there will be lots of ‘likes’ and maybe a few retweets, but seldom is there anything else.

So I don’t expend much attention will be paid to this post – too bad.

The stigma surrounding mental illness is a big problem especially for principals and superintendents who actually witness many people suffering from mental health issues – teachers, students, parents. They have no training in this area and I think, tend to be less than empathetic. As a principal, I know we seldom discussed these topics and any form of distress was easily seen as a sign of weakness.

As a principal, I had an advantage. I have first-hand experience of the impact mental illness can have on an individual. I also had nine years of experience working as a guidance counsellor before I became an administrator. I easily saw more people in distress as an administrator than I ever saw as a counsellor. At least I knew what these people were going through. Most administrators do not and that is not a good situation.

I witnessed this deficit at all levels of senior administration with one notable exception.

The work being done in the  campaign is really important and I am looking forward to participating in the #Ontedchat twitter chat next Wednesday, January 24th, at 8:30 PM. This would also be a great topic for a Voiced Radio podcast!

I hope other people, the people who are in positions of responsibility listen to this podcast – they really should. The stigma surrounding mental illness needs to disappear. The fear needs to disappear. People need to step up and do much more to support those who suffer.