Hamilton·Schools Under Stress

'Hardest year of my life:' Students and teachers are struggling with their mental health

"I have had several students comment with feeling that they are worthless, and not worth the effort," one educator told CBC News.

Kids feel lonely, anxious and disconnected from their friends, and their educators are feeling it too

A boy sits in a corner and holds his head in his hands.
Educators from Hamilton, Halton, Niagara and Brantford say they're concerned about students' mental health during the pandemic. And they're feeling the strain too. (Brian A. Jackson/Shutterstock)

This story is part of a CBC News series examining the stresses the pandemic has placed on educators and the school system. CBC News sent a questionnaire to thousands of education professionals to find out how they and their students are doing in this extraordinary school year. Nearly 9,500 educators responded. Read more stories in this series here.

Nine-year-old Kailey Conohan said she thought her friends had died because she hadn't seen or heard from them after they all started learning online and moved to different classes.

And overall, the Grade 4 Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) student can summarize her whole year with one word.

Schools Under Stress

Monday: The academic impact on Hamilton-area students

Today: The impact on mental health

Wednesday: Vaccines and their future in the school system

"Lonely," she said beside her mother, Sarah Wheeler.

Wheeler says Kailey's year has included failure, anger and lots of tears.

Kailey says she wants to stop doing online learning and see her friends, but she also realizes it isn't that simple.

"I don't want to get COVID," she said. "But I want to be able to talk to them, to see them."

92% of educators worry about mental health impacts

CBC News sent a questionnaire to thousands of educators across Ontario. The responses revealed dire concerns about student mental health.

Regional data, which includes school staff from Hamilton, Halton, Niagara and Brantford, tells the same story.

Ninety-two per cent of the 684 local educators said the challenges of this year will have a psychological impact on at least some of their students.

"I have had several students comment with feeling that they are worthless, and not worth the effort," one respondent said in a comment. 

Paige Wallace, a Grade 10 student in Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board, said her friends have struggled with their mental health this year.

WATCH: Student describes mental health issues from online learning

Hamilton student describes mental health issues from learning during COVID-19 pandemic

1 year ago
Duration 1:15
Paige Wallace, a Grade 10 student in Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic School Board, said she and her friends have been struggling with their mental health this year.

"Stress is a big thing. So, stress over the little things, having short attention spans. One of my friends, he got extremely depressed over this, the isolation really got to him, and suicidal thoughts," she said.

"It's something a lot of teenagers experience unfortunately, but with the global pandemic dropped on top of us, it's just aiding it."

Louis Volante, a Brock University educational studies professor and president of the Canadian Educational Researchers' Association, said researchers already knew about depression and anxiety issues among students before the pandemic.

Now things are worse, he said. He points to recent research from SickKids that shows some children's mental health is deteriorating.

He also said kids aren't getting enough exercise.

"They're not healthy in body and not healthy in mind ... it's a challenge and I don't know of any student that isn't just completely fed up with the number of lockdowns," Volante said.

Educators 'feel broken'

Educators are feeling the toll too, with many citing burnout and a lack of consideration for their own mental health in the questionnaire.

"All my colleagues feel broken," one respondent said. 

"We were ignored and pressured to do quadruple the work, with no breaks, no support, and constant criticism from a government that ignores us, and applauds themselves for deciding we should do online learning, without any resources, instructions, or time to develop programs."

(CBC News)

Another said "this has been the hardest year of my life."

"I have never had mental health issues before this year, and now I have a better understanding of what some others go through on a daily basis. There was NO training from the government about going back to class in person and then magically pivoting to online. This is not the job I signed up for and the burnout rate of this profession will be at an all time high after this year."

Kathy Proctor, Halton's Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario president, said she's been fielding tons of concerns from educators.

"Teachers put their heart and soul into their jobs ... and teachers are dealing with their own families, teaching online from home, and they've got a two-year-old and a four-year-old and trying to cope with that."

Daryl Jerome, Hamilton's Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation president, said he hopes school boards have supports ready for educators.

Pandemic has been hard on educators: school boards

HWDSB director Manny Figueiredo said he sees the fatigue and feels it himself. Teachers have told him that they hope students will get to return to class this school year "because if not, it's not going to be until September."

"Sometimes people underestimate how much [work] it is for some educators," he said.

Figueiredo said it will be important to focus on the well-being portion of the curriculum and not just the academic side.

He added the school board is seeing more social work referrals related to support and mental health. The board already offers psychologists and emotion coaching sessions for families.

Halton District School Board (HDSB) director Stuart Miller called the poll results "unsettling," saying school staff and students have also been dealing with other pandemic issues like family deaths and job insecurity.  He also listed a number of programs and supports the board has in place for staff and parents.

The Grand Erie District School Board declined interview requests, but said in a statement that it knows it's been a challenging year. The District School Board of Niagara declined requests for comment, and the Halton Catholic District School Board didn't respond.

What are the lessons learned from the pandemic?

While it's unclear how long the psychological impacts of this year will last, Volante said he sees some positives. Namely, students are more resilient and are learning more independently.

Dr. Jean Clinton, a psychiatrist and McMaster University clinical professor in the psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences department, also said lessons have emerged from the pandemic.

She points to a recent report that highlights the need to focus on social and emotional learning in tandem with students' well-being and academics upon returning to in-person schooling.

WATCH: Education expert describes what to expect this September

Hamilton education expert describes what to expect in schools this September

1 year ago
Duration 2:05
Dr. Jean Clinton, a psychiatrist and McMaster University clinical professor in the psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences department, said lessons have emerged from the pandemic.

But Clinton also said students may be more distant and have behavioural problems face-to-face.

"When kids come back to school, don't be testing them, don't be figuring out how far behind they are," Clinton said. "Build their relationships, their sense of belonging and connectedness. Then observe what they are interested in."

"Meet the kids where they are. Let's appreciate and understand that they have done a heck of a lot of learning while being at home or online — maybe not just what we've prescribed as a curriculum."

About the questionnaire

The questionnaire was sent to 52,351 email addresses of school workers in eight different provinces, across nearly 200 school districts. Email addresses were scraped from school websites that publicly listed them. The questionnaire was sent using SurveyMonkey.

The provinces and school districts were chosen based on interest by regional CBC bureaus and availability of email addresses. As such, this questionnaire is not a representative survey of educators in Canada. None of the questions were mandatory, and not all respondents answered all of the questions.

(Data analysis: Roberto Rocha and Dexter McMillan)

If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, there is help out there:

  • The Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (phone) | 45645 (Text, 4 p.m. to midnight ET only) | crisisservicescanada.ca

  • Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868. You can also text CONNECT to 686868 and get immediate support from a crisis responder through the Crisis Text Line, powered by Kids Help Phone. Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca

  • In Quebec (French): Association Québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

  • Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre

Attention parents, students and teachers: We want to hear from you!

We hope you'll use this form to tell us about school conditions, how classes are going or whatever other pressing issues are on your mind in Hamilton, Niagara, St. Catharines and Burlington.


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.


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