The Ontario government announced Monday it will introduce a new mandatory education curriculum for elementary and high school students that aims to increase mental health literacy, in the wake of continued challenges that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new curriculum will be introduced for the next school year, and will involve updates to the career studies course that is required for Grade 10 students, as well as mandatory resources for teachers and students on mental health literacy for Grades 7 and 8.
The program was ushered in due to the advocacy of Progressive Conservative MPP Natalie Pierre, who put forward a motion in December around mental health literacy.
At the news conference Monday, she said that her 17-year-old son dying by suicide six years ago is what propelled her to pursue the initiative.
“My son was just like any other student. The day before he died, he took a university campus tour,” said Pierre, through tears. “The night before, he went to a school dance. Anyone seeing him would have observed a normal, healthy teenager. But we know now that was not the case,” she said.
She said in the months and years that followed, others contacted her to share their own experiences with mental illness. Mental health literacy should be taught in schools the same way math and science are, she said.
“The mission is to create a personal toolbox of skills that a young person could utilize in their life and their jobs and in the classroom,” said Education Minister Stephen Lecce at the news conference, where he was also flanked by Michael Tibollo, the associate minister of mental health and addictions.
Lecce said the province will provide $12 million in funding for the plan this year, $14 million in 2024 and $16 million in 2025.
“This is fundamental to creating more usable, practical learning that can help young people be resilient and overcome the daily obstacles that is life,” he said. The curriculum’s focus will be around teaching students the importance of mental wellness for long-term success and reducing stigma, he said.
Students to learn how to manage stress, get help
The new curriculum will include learning materials for Grades 7 and 8 in the form of activities, videos and information to help students learn how to manage stress, determine the relationship between mental health and mental illness, recognize signs symptoms and how to find support.
Grade 10 students will begin mandatory learning in the fall of 2024, and that will include identifying signs of distress and how to connect with mental health resources.
The learning modules have been developed alongside experts at School Mental Health Ontario, an organization that works with Ontario school districts, and SickKids Hospital, said Lecce.
Groups urged province to take action on student wellbeing
The province has also announced an increase of $114 million for mental heath funding in schools for the 2023-2024 school year, which it says is a 500 per cent increase since 2018. However, advocacy groups and teachers’ unions have continued to highlight the deteriorating state of children’s mental health across the province, and say that funding must keep up with inflation.
In a statement to CBC News, Stephen Mensah, the executive director of the Toronto Youth Cabinet, said the curriculum announcement is a “win for students who have long called for this,” despite it only being introduced for some grades. The group has been calling for a more extensive curriculum update for students in Kindergarten to Grade 12.
Last week, the Youth Cabinet along with multiple other organizations including teachers unions, sent a letter to Lecce urging additional mental health initiatives in schools. The letter outlines the need for mental health days to allow student absences, more support from professionals and mental health screenings. It also acknowledges that these concerns are exacerbated for Indigenous and Black students.
Those calls came as the pandemic’s impact on youth continues to be felt. Statistics Canada reported that youth mental health had declined since COVID-19’s onset, with 61 per cent of 12 to 17 year-olds in 2022 stating their mental health was “very good or excellent,” compared to 73 per cent in 2019.
Also, a February report from People for Education, a non-profit research institution based in Toronto, found that the percentage of schools with no access to psychologists had doubled in the last decade, and geography was a major factor in whether students could access resources.
The declining mental health of youth has also been linked to incidents of increased violence in Ontario schools, with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation urging the province earlier this year to hire mental support staff in response.
Reporters at Monday’s news conference also asked Lecce about mental health needs for those in the LGTBQ community, stemming from recent clashes at a York Catholic School Board meeting on whether to raise the Pride flag.
While the minister acknowledged those students are at a higher risk of suicide, an issue that is well-documented in Canada, and that those youth must be affirmed in their identities and feel safe, he did not say he would direct schools to raise the flag.