EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.
To kick off National Mental Health Week, the Ford government announced it will increase how much students are taught about mental health.
Grade 7 and 8 students will learn about managing stress, recognizing signs and symptoms of mental health concerns, and understanding the relationship between mental health and mental illness as part of their health and physical education curriculum, a government press release says.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said on Monday that these teachings will be "available" to start the 2023-24 school year, but will become mandatory beginning the year after.
Also as of the 2024 fall semester, the Grade 10 career studies course will include lessons on recognizing the signs of being overwhelmed or struggling, along with instruction about where to seek help from locally, he said.
While announcing the curricula changes, Lecce said the government's intention is to provide "usable, practical learning that can help young people be resilient and overcome ... daily obstacles."
"Our goal is to ensure students have the tools they need, with a focus on understanding how a healthy mind and body is critical to long-term academic success," Lecce said.
The government will rely on advice from experts from School Mental Health Ontario, a provincial organization that supports students' mental health, and SickKids to develop its curriculum changes, added the education minister.
Lecce and Associate Mental Health and Addictions Minister Michael Tibollo made their government's announcement together in Burlington with local MPP Natalie Pierre, also of the Progressive Conservatives.
They also unveiled new details on Monday about the government's larger spending plans on mental health services for students.
In the province's 2023-24 budget, $114 million is allocated to mental health supports and initiatives for students, including $12 million to provide services over the summer break. Another $14 million will allow these summer mental health services to continue during the summer of 2024 as well, the government announced.
A government press release said of the remaining $102 million that the provincial government plans to spend on mental health initiatives for students this year that:
- $50.4 million is for school boards' direct use for mental health supports;
- $26.5 million is to hire permanent mental health workers in secondary schools;
- $10.8 million is for school boards' collaboration with community partners to provide mental health services;
- $6.5 million is for School Mental Health Ontario to provide resources and training to educators and school-based clinicians;
- $3.75 million is for supports for racialized and marginalized students, specifically;
- and $2 million apiece is to increase parents' awareness of student mental health, and to support emerging needs and initiatives promoting healthy behaviour, and preventing the use of harmful substances
In a statement responding to the government's announcement, NDP MPP and education critic Chandra Pasma said it "should have included plans to bring more mental health supports to students and to address the significant shortage of teachers and education workers."
People for Education, a charity that does research on public education, found in its 2022-23 survey of Ontario public school principals that 95 per cent of schools said they needed more help supporting students' mental health, and that 46 per cent said they had no access at all to a mental health/addiction specialist or nurse.
A couple of weeks ago, NDP MPP Bhutila Karpoche brought a group of Grade 8 girls from Toronto's west end to Queen's Park to speak about experiencing some of these gaps firsthand. A pair of students who spoke to The Trillium explained that their schools' mental health supports amount to little more than digital services.
While answering reporters' questions on Monday, Lecce suggested the government was considering allowing students to take mental health days, much like how they can take sick days. "It's something we're continuing to consult (about), just to make sure we understand the intended and unintended consequences," he said.
Lecce also thanked Pierre, the PC MPP for Burlington, at their announcement for her "exceptional leadership" in advocating for improved mental health support for students.
As Pierre then explained, her son died by suicide six years ago when he was 17 years old.
"It's my hope that this (the government's increased mental health support for students) will prevent tragedies like we, and many other families, have experienced," Pierre said.