P.E.I. introducing new mental health school curriculum
Psychiatrist behind curriculum guide says mental health literacy, not awareness, key
P.E.I. public schools are in the process of introducing a new piece of curriculum that will change the way mental health is taught and talked about.
The Department of Education plans to incorporate a curriculum guide that focuses on building mental health literacy — not just awareness — into its current health curriculum.
"The difference between mental health awareness and literacy is mental health literacy is knowing something as opposed to knowing about something," said Dr. Stan Kutcher, a professor of psychiatry at Dalhousie University, and the creator of the curriculum guide.
"Mental health literacy is a deep understanding of what constitutes mental health, a deep understanding of mental disorders and their treatment, and a deep understanding and eradication of stigma against mental illnesses, against people who have a mental illness and against treatments for mental disorders."
Kutcher said building that literacy has been proven to help students better understand their own mental health, as well as that of their family and peers — along with when and how to seek help.
What it looks like in the classroom
As an example of how mental health literacy is taught, Kutcher's curriculum guide has a section that talks about different mental health states, and how they can be confused with each other. While being upset or annoyed is a sign of mental distress, it explains, it doesn't necessarily mean a person is suffering from depression, which is a mental disorder.
It then goes on to explain the difference between mental distress, a mental health problem and a mental disorder or illness.
Another section talks about different disorders — such as schizophrenia, panic disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder — what the criteria are for diagnosing those disorders, and what a student can do if they think they or someone else is experiencing these conditions.
Kutcher's work, which he said is designed for students in Grades 7 through 9, is free to access, evidence-based, and his team is continually publishing research on its results.
He said schools are a very logical place to teach children and youth about mental health.
"There is no other place in our society, we have no other institutions through which we can reach all the young people except through education, so it's a perfect opportunity to reach them," he said.
First step: training teachers
Before P.E.I. can fully incorporate this into their curriculum, it has to train teachers, said Maribeth Rogers Neale, the health and physical education curriculum leader for P.E.I.'s Department of Education, Early Learning and Culture.
"As you can appreciate, that's a lot of teachers on the Island, so we're looking at the planning around training intermediate level teachers first," she said.
Rogers Neale added that the department hopes to have that training plan in place "early in the new year," and until then, it's too early to say when the curriculum will start to be rolled out in classrooms.
"We've identified this as a need and we have urgency around increasing mental health literacy, so it is a priority," she said.
A fit with current curriculum
Rogers Neale said Kutcher's work fits in well with the current health curriculum — which focuses on wellness, relationship skills and life learning choices.
She said that starts with learning about emotions in the early grades, and in later years learning personal strategies to deal with stress and to express their emotions.
Some of Kutcher's work was already incorporated in the province's Grade 10 curriculum in 2014, and teachers delivering that would have already received training to do so. The new training will bring it into earlier grades.
"And even identifying any gaps that may be present, especially when we're looking at it with the mental health lens and we're learning more and more all the time about mental health," Rogers Neale said.
This story is part of an ongoing series CBC P.E.I. is doing on mental health services in the province. You can share your experiences with us here.