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CANADA: When student stress becomes a mental health disorder

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Like many teachers, students and parents, Rachel French is dealing with the stress of getting back into a school routine.

Her first few days back at her School District 43 (SD43) office in Coquitlam this past week are already hectic, with no sense of things slowing down in the near future.

But the district’s co-ordinator of positive mental health knows that getting enough sleep, taking mental breaks and understanding stress is a normal part of life helps her get through her day.

Now, the veteran school counsellor is finding ways to help her colleagues teach students to recognize emotional overload and ways to deal with it.

“Sleep — getting back into that, that’s really important for wellness — and normalizing stress, [understanding] that when we are starting school that we’re all a little bit nervous and excited, that’s really normal,” French told Glacier Media.

As school ramps up for a busy fall and winter, SD43 will be incorporating a number of strategies to help staff and students deal with stress and recognize when issues need additional support.

The initiatives come as a B.C. Coroners Service Death Review Panel issued recommendations on ways to prevent suicide deaths among youth. It found that 111 young people age 10 to 18 years old ended their lives between 2013 and ’18, experiencing feelings of hopelessness, distress or despair. And while 65% were dealing with relationship issues at the time of their death,  32% were experiencing educational issues.

The report made a number of recommendations, chief among them that mental wellbeing be incorporated into social-emotional learning for students.

French said she welcomes the report’s findings and agrees schools are a good place to start talking about mental wellness and ways to make it part of everyday life.

Reasons for suicide

“It's a good thing that we’re actually talking about it more," she said. "We’re recognizing that we’re seeing some of these things and, as educators, are promoting mental wellbeing to prevent them. We are working on how we can help kids build their toolbox."

Among the programs SD43 will be implementing will be Everyday Anxiety Strategies for Educators (EASE), which will help teachers working with kids up to Grade 7 incorporate anxiety-prevention strategies into their classroom routines.

Secondary schools are also using the work of psychiatrist and professor Stan Kutcher, now a Canadian senator, to teach secondary students how to distinguish between mental health and mental disorders, and learn how to ask for help when they need it.

“it’s increasing those help-seeking skills and also creating a common language,”  French said, so they can “recognize when it’s a stress response or when it’s a sign of a mental illness and they need to get support outside of the school or access a school counsellor to help them get outside support.”

Not everything is a mental health crisis or disorder but sometimes a failed test or relationship will feel like it. Giving students strategies for reaching out, and the confidence to open a conversation, will help. And as the school year progresses, those will be part of the curriculum, along with reading, writing and numeracy.

Suicide deaths

By the  numbers

  • The B.C. Adolescent Health Survey (2018) of 38,000 students in Grades 7 to 12 found that 11% of adolescent boys and 23% of adolescent girls reported suicidal thoughts 
  • When asked about specific mental health conditions, students were more likely to report having some of these conditions in 2018 than in 2013: anxiety disorder/panic attacks (19 per cent in 2018 vs. 8 per cent in 2013), depression (15 per cent vs. 10 per cent), attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (7 per cent vs. 6 per cent), and post-traumatic stress disorder (3 per cent vs. 1 per cent).

Protective factors against youth suicide

  • Strong family supports and connections
  • Positive peer and online relationships 
  • Belonging to positive group in person or online
  • Good physical health
  • Resilience
  • Autonomy
  • Sense of purpose
  • Hope
  • Feeling cared for

- Diane Strandberg, Tri-City News