Just WHO is Responsible for WHAT? School’s Role in Child Mental Health

Did you know…

  • According to most experts, one in five Ontario children and youth struggle with mental health problems.
  • Only 17 percent of Ontario elementary schools have guidance councillors.
  • This gap in educational mental health care is often filled by teachers who are usually not sufficiently trained in matters of mental health.

Did you enjoy those not-so-fun-facts? Me neither. So, what do we do about it?

This article, which focuses on the ever-growing and ill-defined role of guidance councillors in Ontario, the lack of funding allotted to these councillors, and the resulting gap in mental health support for Ontarian children describes the state of guidance councillors as an “urgent problem.”

And I’m inclined to agree.

The lack of clarity in defining the role of a guidance councillor is reflected even in the two groups’ responses to each other’s concerns. While the staff, principals, and the guidance councillors themselves view the role of a guidance councillor as helping students cope with, “complex social and emotional issues both at home and at school,” the Education Minister, Liz Sandals, views things a little differently:

“Sandals said the government spent $400 million on librarians and guidance services in 2015-2016. She also said education and career planning is built into other aspects of the curriculum.”

In justifying the Government’s lack of investment in hiring and training more guidance councillors, Sandals explains that what she may view as the primary roles for a guidance councillor: helping students with education and career planning, is now being taken care of by other parts of the curriculum, thus negating a need for investing more resources in training/hiring guidance councillors.

So, what’s the deal? Who’s right? The education minister or the educators?

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I think there’s a key difference between the technical definition of a guidance councillor and the practical definition of a guidance councillor.

Technically, educators are meant to teach you what you need to know academically, and educational guidance councillors are meant to guide you to the best possible academic path that you can be on. In this sense, what Sandals said is perfectly reasonable. If that job is being taken care of by the students themselves, through adding the learning of planning and decision making skills into the curriculum, then great!

However, practically, students spend over 6 hours a day, and around 190 days a year at school. That’s half of a twelve hour day, and around half of a 365-day year. School is a huge part of their lives, and the connections they build with their educators often come very close to those built with their parents. To them, the term, “guidance councillor” takes on a different meaning completely. The reality of the situation is that students often require “guidance” in much more than just academia, and when they step into that guidance councillor’s office (presuming there is one), it won’t just be academia that the guidance councillor will be asked to help with.

I chose to include this article in my Newscrawl collection because I think it highlights one of the main issues that educators and policy makers have been struggling with since the dawn of public education in Canada: Just who is responsible for what?

It reminds me a lot of this article, which we discussed last week, surrounding the university’s role in their students’ mental health. Cornell university had taken the very visual step of installing mesh nets underneath bridges, which many students are said to have jumped off of on campus, in a final attempt to end their mental health struggles.

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Although this may seem kind of dramatic, the question remains: who is responsible for ensuring that students are mentally healthy? While the obvious answer may appear to be “students,” one must not forget who may have caused the mental health struggles to begin with (many times, universities), and who benefits greatly if the students are mentally healthy (both the students and the universities).

This brings us back to the original question posed at the beginning of this post in regards to the sad state of mental health care for children in Ontarian education: What do we do about it? It seems like a good start would be going past the rudimentary question of whose responsibility it is to keep students mentally healthy, and instead ask what each and every one of us can do to keep Ontarian children mentally healthy.

Since schools are such a major part of children’s lives, it makes sense then, that they should play a major role, also, in striving to endure their overall well-being.

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