If you walk into the board office of the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario, or into any of its schools, you’ll inevitably run into a blue elephant.
Though they’re small and unassuming, those elephants are at the root of big changes in terms of how the school board is meeting mental health issues head on. The elephant, displayed in schools and board offices, signifies that the CDSBEO cares about the wellness of others, and the board is a safe place to talk about mental health, without fear of being looked upon differently, building a board-wide culture of empathy and support.
For embracing the Elephant in the Room campaign, and a host other reasons, the CDSBEO received two national awards for mental health initiatives and leadership in June. The board was chosen as the 2014 recipient of the Jordan James Pickell Mental Health Achievement recognition Award, given by the Mood Disorder Society of Canada annually. Director of Education, Bill Gartland, also received the Marg Starzynski Mental Health Leadership Award for leadership in community mental health awareness.
The awards congratulated the CDSBEO in its ground-breaking work toward reducing stigma and raising awareness of mental illness and health within its 42 schools. The honour is a prestigious nod for outstanding contribution to mental health education and anti-stigma activities through actively engaging students and staff in understanding mental illness and the importance of mental health. In fact, the school board was the first in the province to work with the Mood Disorder Society of Canada to achieve a more open environment surrounding mental illness.
The need for meaningful discussion was brought to the forefront for Gartland after a personal experience. Two years ago, his daughter was in Grade 8 and struggling with mental health issues. She self-admitted into the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and spent several weeks there, excelling in care at the hospital.
“When you live that as parents, both in education and personally, it changes your perspective. The reality is that boards have lots of students in the same situation,” he said.
Now in Grade 10, his daughter is a vibrant young lady who is doing well. Seeing that transformation due to openness surrounding mental health and accessing the appropriate resources, Gartland said the board decided to use a PA Day to talk about mental health. For the past two years during the fall semester, the board has gathered to address mental health.
“There still a stigma surrounding mental health,” he said. “People don’t like to talk about it. We, as a society, are on the cusp of becoming more comfortable with acknowledging it and talking openly about it. That’s a very important step.”
Moving forward with that, the CDSBEO worked with the Mood Disorder Society of Canada to adopt the Elephant in the Room campaign. Gartland said the adoption of the campaign last year supported the larger, ongoing board-wide mental health initiative. He said the board has developed and is committed to building student resiliency through a strength-based approach, and continuum of support with key prevention, targeted intervention, and specialized supports.
“The premise is that we’re happy to talk about any mental health issues and direct people for support,” he said, noting that the entire school community is really at the heart of the campaign, encompassing students, parents, staff, guidance, and principals.
After introducing that campaign, the board then worked to get mental health issues awareness into policy, effectively embedding standards from the Mental Health Commission of Canada into the board’s policy statement. In another ground-breaking move, the CDSBEO was the first organization in Canada to embed the standards into policy.
Now, the board continually puts an emphasis on talking about mental health and collaboratively working together to foster a psychologically safe and healthy environment for learning. Resources for teachers were developed in the form of a handbook called Finding Direction for staff. Gartland said the handbook essentially aims to stop the silence surrounding mental health issues and provides positive actions and contacts.
One of the novel ways the board has worked to bring mental health issues to light was to create an app which entices students to report bullying, but also acts of kindness. Called EMPOWER, the free-to-download app allows students to immediately alert the principal if seeing something concerning. The app effectively encourages student voice, promotes positive mental health and helps stop student victimization. It also gives the opportunity to connect with resources such as the Kids Help Phone, addictions resources, Crime Stoppers, and local parishes.
Gartland said these deliberate strategies and approaches make it possible to reach vulnerable students. “We have received great feedback. It definitely doesn’t replace reaching out to a caring adult for guidance, but it’s a good tool for confidentiality,” he said.
“People are happy we’re talking about this,” he said. “The initiative is about bringing awareness to mental health issues, but also about people becoming more comfortable talking about mental health – and we have seen total engagement from the students.” He cites students and leaders working together to host everything from fundraisers to help Defeat Depression, to parent nights around mental health and support. He said the board of trustees has also been exceptional with support.
“For me, the awards reflect the amazing work everyone is doing together,” he said. “The entire team throughout the system is coming together. I’m just one person, but students, staff, and the school community has really united to make this successful.”
“The last two years have been a great opportunity for us to make a difference in the lives of the students and parents who we serve.”