Stoney Creek school fills gap in mental health education

It's noon at Cardinal Newman Catholic Secondary School in Stoney Creek, and the foyer at the centre of campus is bustling with students.

Mental health not in Ontario school curriculum until senior level

Cardinal Newman's iMATTER program provides peer mentoring and in-class education about mental health. Experts say it's an element lacking in the current school curriculum. (Larry Strung)

It's noon at Cardinal Newman Catholic Secondary School in Stoney Creek, and the foyer at the centre of campus is bustling with students.

They walk in pairs and small groups. They wear the uniform red and white.

With an estimated one in five youth dealing with a mental health issue, chances are many in the crowd do. But the iMATTER group, with their blue T-shirts and encouraging hand-made posters, are on duty.

With the iMATTER program, about 60 students act as "peer mentors," or safe confidantes for students who suspect they're having trouble. They hold three sessions for each year's Grade 9 religion classes where they discuss mental illness and call on local guest speakers.

The provincial curriculum doesn't include any mental health discussion in mandatory courses, so the program is an anomaly. The students have found themselves speaking at conferences and training other schools anxious to develop their own programs.

"When people from across the country are coming up to us saying 'this is a great program, what do we need to get started at our school?' you can imagine how honoured and humbled we feel," said Marisa Mariella, guidance counsellor and iMATTER teacher advisor.

"In other parts of Canada, mental health is part of the curriculum. I know in Ontario, we're moving towards that, but we're not there yet."

Need to teach teachers

IMATTER started in 2009 and includes training 14 teachers to cope with students in mental health crisis. Teachers are often uncertain how to recognize or deal with mental illness, Mariella said.

Such training would be easy to incorporate teacher's college, but right now, it's not, Mariella said.

"As a society and as school boards, we need to equip these gatekeepers with the tools they need to support students," she said. "It's not a matter of math and English and science and checking up on homework. You have a real live body in front of you and we need to address the whole person."

IMATTER aims to increase awareness, dispel myths, link students to resources and teach healthy ways of dealing with emotions.

The Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health recently awarded the group a Champion of Mental Health award. Last year, the Mental Health Commission of Canada interviewed them while compiling its 10-year mental health strategy.

Problems teens face

The group presents at conferences that range from a Ministry of Education symposium to this week's Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention conference in Niagara Falls. Mariella has won a number of awards, including the Teacher of the Year Award from the Teachers Credit Union and a YMCA Peace Medal.

Mental health issues vary among students, said Faith Gallant, a 17-year-old peer mentor. Many stress about family, grades and getting into university, and "that starts in Grade 9." Plus there's the age-old problem of peer pressure.

"There is pressure to look a certain way, and to act a certain way at school," she said. "We're trying to get rid of that as best as possible and just let kids be themselves, but at the end of the day, that's still there."

It costs about $5,000 per school year to operate the program. That includes supplies and providing honorariums for guest speakers.

Teaching others costs too. Training staff at the St. Clair Catholic School Board to start their own program had a $2,000 price tag, Mariella said.

Not in mandatory classes

The group cobbles together money from various community funds, including the Hamilton Community Foundation and the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health. The students and their advisors spend hours filling out grant applications, said teacher advisor Halina Salciccioli.

Mariella wishes the Ministry of Education provided school boards with base funding to teach youth mental health. Right now, it's only discussed in some physical education and social science classes in Grades 11 and 12.

In one Grade 9 exercise, students cite adjectives they associate with cancer patients. They use words like courageous and strong. When asked the same about people with mental illness, they use words such as stupid and crazy.

By the end of the sessions, that's changed. That makes the program worthwhile, Gallant said.

"Kids are recognizing that this is something important and something needs to be done about it," she said. "They're stepping up and coming forward and that really shows it's working."

Province delayed curriculum

The province was scheduled to release a new health and physical education curriculum two and a half years ago that addressed mental health. It was shelved when aspects of the elementary curriculum, such as teaching about homosexuality in Grade 3 and oral sex in Grade 7, drew criticism.

On Wednesday, the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association released a report, Time to Move on Child and Youth Health, urging the province to implement the new curriculum.

"This means educators are struggling to work with a curriculum that was developed before 'cyberbullying' was even a recognized term, and without updated instructional approaches for teaching about bullying, mental health, social and emotional learning," the report says.

"The feelings of isolation and hopelessness some students face can eventually lead them to take drastic measures. And considering that 10 per cent of students report having seriously thought about committing suicide in the past year, this is another area in which the stakes are too high to tolerate any further delay."

But there will be a little more delay. The Ministry of Education is doing "additional consultation" on the curriculum plan, but it still hasn't decided when that will happen and who it will involve, said Laurel Broten, Minister of Education, in an interview with CBC Hamilton.

"No decisions have been made about the timing and the process, but we're committed to having that consultation," she said.

Broten pointed to the government's 2011 Comprehensive Mental Health and Addictions Strategy, with its $257 million in funding over three years, as evidence it takes the issue seriously.

As for the Cardinal Newman program, "it's something I would certainly look forward to learning more about next time I'm in Stoney Creek."