Reprinted from "Schools" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5 (2), p. 3
Mental health problems among elementary and high school students are much more common than many British Columbians believe, and use of alcohol and other drugs by teenagers has its own misconceptions. No classroom is immune to these issues or their interweaving; at any given time, at least a handful of students in each classroom in this province are going to struggle with them. And behind each of these kids will be a family—often confused, frustrated, misjudged and yearning for help.
Teachers and other school professionals are ‘first responders’ whether they want to be, or are prepared to be. Because they see kids regularly most days of the year, school professionals are in a unique position to be able to notice the first sign of changes in kids’ academic, social and emotional development. They may also be able to help kids develop skills in resilience to weather or even prevent early signs of trouble. These trusted adults may help encourage the school belonging that’s known to be protective against a whole range of problems in young people. Or, as some articles in this issue point out, they may not always offer the trust and help that’s needed. Teachers and counsellors are only part of the picture, though, because this issue is focused on what schools, as a whole, can do.
There is no profile of the mentally ill or drug using young person. Some children or teens with mental health and/or substance use problems will be disruptive; others may hide their symptoms and behaviours. Some of these children will excel in the mainstream curriculum; others will need additional support or alternative pathways to help them learn at their best. Some kids will have more disabling problems requiring treatment; others will not have anything diagnosable but will need to learn to navigate mental health and substance use risks like all of us have to. And some kids with these issues are represented by the absent seats in class. Add to this the lenses of culture, gender, age, and geography and our guest editor hits it on the mark when she notes that ‘diversity is the new norm’ in the classroom. She reminds me of another saying—if you can get it right for the most vulnerable, you will usually get it right for all the others.
About the authorSarah is Visions Editor and Director of Public Education and Communications at the Canadian Mental Health Association's BC Division. She also has personal experience with mental illness.