'Silent killers': Petition pushes for mental health curriculum in schools

A petition by a St. John's woman to have mental health curriculum introduced in Atlantic Canadian schools has gained nearly 30,000 signatures.

'So many of our people are falling through the cracks,' says mental health activist Rhonda Dicks

Teachers believe student behaviour is deteriorating but teachers are limited when it comes to consequences or punishment. (Denise Davy/CBC)

An online petition to update the curriculum in Atlantic Canadian junior and senior high schools to include mental health has garnered close to 30,000 signatures.

The petition, created by Rhonda Dicks of St. John's, Newfoundland, asks governments across Atlantic Canada to develop classes that teach young people to recognize the signs of mental illness, anxiety and depression.

Dicks said she decided to start the petition after a conversation with a 17-year-old girl who was experiencing suicidal thoughts.

"I took her to the hospital here in St. John's, and we were there for three hours," she said. "Her family doctor refuses to prescribe medication for her until she sees a psychiatrist, and a psychiatrist couldn't see her for three months. She was crying desperately, 'I can't wait that long!'"

Dicks said she recalled her own experience of depression beginning at age seven. Her young adulthood, she said, was characterized by bouts of suicidal ideation, anxiety and bulimia.

"I had no idea what was going on and neither did my family," she said.

"Now at the age of 45, I am on two medications and still fighting a daily battle," Dicks said. "I understand the fear, torment and confusion that our young people, who suffer with this disease, go through. If our youth are not educated on one of the most important topics in today's society, where do they turn?"

Dicks envisions a more intensive program than the occasional workshops and seminars currently offered in some schools.

"There has to be something more an a once a week session," she said. "There is so much to learn about mental illnesses that a week just won't cut it."

New approach on the Island

Prince Edward Island is phasing in a new approach to student mental health that will see teams of professionals — including student health nurses, youth outreach workers, and occupational therapists — deliver support to students.

According to a memo sent to staff at the schools, the teams will "provide services that focus on prevention and promotion, early identification and intervention and timely access to appropriate services."

The program will be rolled out in the Westisle and Montague families of schools this fall.

Similar teams will be established in 2018-2019 in the Colonel Gray, Souris, Morell, and Bluefield families of schools, and in 2019-2020 in the Charlottetown Rural, Kinkora and Kensington, and Three Oaks families.

'A world of good'

Dicks said she's been overwhelmed by the response to the petition, which has received signatures "from every province" — many from parents who have lost children to depression.

"This petition has brought things to light," she said. "This is actually getting things started."

She said she plans to forward the document to education ministers in every province and territory, as well as local school boards.

"It is doing me a world of good to see the response," she said. "Right now we have over 28,000 signatures, but we have so many more to get."

"If there was a killer in the community, we wouldn't rest until justice was served and that killer was put behind bars," she said. "Mental illness, depression and anxiety and PTSD and the like are silent killers."

"So many of our people are falling through the cracks."