Friday, October 29, 2010

New mental health curriculum guide targets high schools

An October 26th posting by the Dalhousie University Medical School:
By Margo Wheaton

Dealing with a mental health disorder can be overwhelming, especially for adolescents. At a time when fitting in feels crucial, it can be hard for a teen to admit how down she is or how alone he feels.

Although it’s estimated that mental health problems affect one in five young people in Canada, early diagnosis and treatment of conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, bulimia and anxiety disorders remains elusive. As a result, many young people aren’t receiving the help they need.

Dr. Stan Kutcher [pictured], a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Dalhousie University's Faculty of Medicine and the holder of the Sun Life Financial Chair in Adolescent Mental Health, has a group that has been working to change that.

Through a partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association, Kutcher and his team at the IWK Health Centre have developed the Mental Health and High School Curriculum Guide, an innovative learning resource for secondary school teachers. The guide represents a component of the first expert-reviewed comprehensive school-based mental health program in the country and combines collaborative learning strategies with interactive multimedia tools.

The goal? To increase mental health awareness and literacy in students, teachers, and families.

According to Kutcher, who is this year’s recipient of the J.M. Cleghorn Award for Excellence in Leadership in Clinical Research, early identification of mental disorders in adolescents is key: “The data is very clear. We know that early identification and early effective treatment has profound short and long term positive outcomes not only in terms of the disorder but in terms of secondary prevention.”

He notes that identifying mental disorders in adolescence can help prevent substance abuse and social-vocational problems and stresses that failure to identify and treat mental illness in teenagers can have dire consequences: “Jail has become the new mental hospital for kids. We have to intervene earlier.”

By equipping schools with the most current resources in mental health and education along with the tools to facilitate dialogue in the classroom, teachers and students alike will be in a better position to see mental health problems for what they are and know there’s no shame in seeking help.

The curriculum guide, which consists of lesson plans, student-friendly activities and audiovisual resources, has already been successfully field-tested at Forest Heights Community School and will be further evaluated in two Digby schools early in the new year. A national launch of the program will take place in the next few months.

The curriculum resource is part of a larger framework called Pathways to Care, a collaborative, inter-disciplinary approach to adolescent mental health that’s been developed by the Sun Life team as part of its mission to disseminate the most current scientific information available. Other resources include a number of creative, interactive and user-friendly materials specifically for parents, siblings, healthcare providers and, of course, for teens themselves.

By educating the most important people in a child’s life about mental health, the model cuts across sectors and emphasizes the importance of community connections as a gateway to early detection and treatment.

Kutcher notes that “what we’re doing in the schools here is really cutting edge” and is very appreciative of support from the Provincial Department of Education, the Schools Plus Program, school boards, schools, educators and others without whom the work could not be successful. He points out that the Mental Health Commission of Canada has identified school mental health as a national priority and he envisions it as a major area of investment and development over the next decade.

“We’re now developing national and international linkages in school mental health and I think that we’re well positioned to take a leadership role. I’m hopeful that the province will continue to work very closely with us as we move that agenda forward.”

Media enquiries:

Allison Gerrard, Dalhousie Medical School, (902) 494.1789 / (902) 222.1917,

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