The Ontario government is introducing a new education curriculum for elementary and high-school students that will make mental-health literacy mandatory for the first time.
The update – which will include new resources for Grade 7 and 8 students and teachers, as well as revise the Grade 10 career curriculum to include mental-health literacy – was announced Monday by Education Minister Stephen Lecce. The changes were spurred by the advocacy of first-term Progressive Conservative MPP Natalie Pierre, who represents the western Toronto suburb of Burlington.
For years, Ms. Pierre has been pushing for a greater focus on mental-health education in schools. Her son, Mike, was 17 and in Grade 12 when he took his own life in 2017.
“My family is obviously devastated by the tragedy,” she said in an interview. “We teach our kids a lot of things in schools. We teach them physical health education, we teach them sexual health education, we teach them first aid, history, biology. But we don’t actually teach mental-health literacy.”
Most mental-health issues develop between the ages of 15 to 24, Ms. Pierre said, and the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the impact on many school-aged children. Recent data from Statistics Canada found that fewer young people between the ages of 12 and 17 were describing their mental health as “very good” or “excellent” compared with prepandemic levels.
Ms. Pierre first proposed a motion in the Ontario legislature last December that called on the Ministry of Education to further expand mental-health literacy in schools and to provide “preventative knowledge to protect students and save lives.”
The Ontario government’s new learning modules for Grade 7 and 8 students and teachers will begin in September. The new curriculum, aligned with health and physical education courses, will include information on how to manage stress, understanding the relationship between mental health and mental illness, recognizing signs and symptoms of a mental-health concern, mental-health stigma, and knowing when and how to get help.
The government is also introducing mental-health literacy for Grade 10 students, to begin in the fall of 2024. It will be included in the mandatory career studies course and feature information about how to recognize the signs of being overwhelmed or struggling, and how to find help locally.
The resources are being developed alongside mental-health organizations, as well as Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.
Ms. Pierre said he believes that by equipping students with the tools to understand mental health struggles at an earlier age, they can grow into healthier adults.
“I believe that knowledge is power, and if we can teach our students the facts, and give them the tools they need to navigate some of the challenges, you’ll carry those with you your entire life,” she said.
The government is also announcing an additional $12-million this year and $14-million next year to provide mental-health services for students over the summer months, including access to school-based professionals. The number of schools in Ontario with no access to psychologists has doubled over the past decade, according to a February survey.
The government has also announced an increase in mental-health funding in schools to $114-million this year, which it says is a 500-per-cent increase since 2018. But union and opposition critics have said spending on education is not enough to keep up with inflation.