- by Anne Finlay-Stewart, Editor

At Owen Sound City Council's last meeting, Deputy Mayor and Grey County Councillor Brian O'Leary reported that he had suggested to the county's Mental Health and Addictions Task Force that the Ontario school curriculum be changed to “fill a void.” In particular, he wanted to add education on the dangers of tobacco and drugs, and “a mental health education curriculum beginning in primary school.” (Transcription of the report below)

It is shocking that no one on the Task Force, including the Medical Officer of Health, nor MPP Bill Walker whose government implemented the most recent revision to Ontario's Physical Education and Health Curriculum in 2019, seems to know what is in it.

Mr. O'Leary describes this idea as a “game changer”, and says it has received a “very positive response” from the current Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce according to MPP Bill Walker. While Huron-Bruce MPP Lisa Thompson was the Minister of Education when the most recent curriculum was approved, Mr. Lecce should have been able to reassure Mr. Walker of how the curriculum addresses mental health.

The suggestion that mental health education is not part of the Ontario curriculum and needs to be added is just plain inaccurate.

In the first 160 pages (when we stopped counting) of the 320-page  Ontario's Physical Education and Health Curriculum for grades 1 to 8, “mental health” appears 130 times, along with dozens of other references to bullying, anxiety, fear, self-care, stigma, etc.

The Physical Education and Health Curriculum was revised in 2015 for the first time since 1998. In 2019, another revision was implemented in Ontario. The Progressive Conservative government proudly announced at that time:

“As a result of these enhancements, the elementary Health and Physical Education curriculum will make Ontario a leader in teaching students about Mental Health, including Social-Emotional Learning Skills, the effects and consequences of vaping and cannabis, cyber safety, including bullying prevention and healthy relationships, including consent.”

Easily Googled documents from the former Ministry of Children and Youth and the Ministry of Education will confirm the long-standing collaborations on children's mental health. 

The most recent annual report of the CMHA Grey Bruce acknowledges their classroom programs  reaching students from JK to 12. For children ages 5 to 11,  child-sized puppets are used to talk about self-esteem, managing anger and feelings, dealing with peer pressure and bullies, appreciating individual differences and the importance of disclosure. For Grades 6 to 12,  the  Let’s Talk program  addresses mental health awareness and information, healthy relationships, coping strategies, and more. The Rainbows program is for children who have experienced loss, addressing topics such as self,family, belonging, fears, blames, trust, forgiveness, stepfamilies, feelings, changes, transitions, coping, reaching out and acceptance. CMHA Grey Bruce offers support and training for schools or organizations interested in starting a Rainbows program.

This is only a sampling of the school programming the CMHA has run since 2003 to support the Ontario curriculum objectives.  Sustainable funding is not available from any level of government fanclubbunsfor this, so 30% of staff time is spent on fundraisers, writing grant applications and seeking community partners.  If the Grey County Mental Health and Addictions Task Force has the ear of the government, stable funding for these programs would be a good ask, but perhaps a stretch of its own terms of reference.

Could more be done to support children's mental health in elementary and secondary schools?  Without question.  But mental health is clearly, and permanently, a significant part of the Ontario school curriculum.

The Grey County Task Force was established in February to address a crisis - the challenges residents face gaining access to treatment for mental health and substance misuse.  "Grey County does not have a direct role in the provision of mental health or substance use treatment; however, the Grey County Council recognizes there is an ongoing crisis in our community and intervention is necessary," read a media release at the time.

“The mental health and addiction crisis in our community is urgent and it’s important for our task force to move quickly if we want to start making a difference and improving lives,” said Warden Hicks. “It’s clear the system in place doesn’t have the necessary resources to meet the demand in our community. We need action and we need it now.”

 Full transcription of the Report from Deputy Mayor and Grey County Councillor Brian O'Leary to Owen Sound City Council, Monday, April 25, 2022.

As you know I chair the Grey County Mental Health and Addictions Task Force and during the very first meeting I had suggested a change in the curriculum in our schools beginning in grade seven or eight in an effort to educate our kids on the dangers of smoking cigarettes, chewing tobacco and experimenting with drugs. It was then that we as a committee received an education of our own. In total agreement with the idea, Dr. Arra explained that we need to start this at age zero.

We have far too many children brought into this world and being raised with one parent, or growing up witnessing addiction first hand and missing out on important teachings; being taught the basics such as good manners and morals, looking a person in the eye, a firm handshake, treating people with respect, treating women with respect. There are so many of our kids that don't have the support or have that role model at home.

At the April 18th Committee meeting, the Task Force approved the following resolution:

Whereas mental health challenges can occur early in life, with children often not having the understanding about what mental health is, supports available and how to manage mental health in their daily lives, and
Whereas building resilience early in life is an important aspect of promoting mental well-being, and
Whereas there is strong evidence of the importance of focussed education on mental health to target children to build resilience at this age group including identification, prevention, intervention, and supports,

Therefore be it resolved that the Mental Health and Addictions Task Force on behalf of Grey County Council request that the Minister of Education implement a mental health education curriculum beginning in primary school to provide children with the necessary tools to support on-going resilience and mental wellness,

and that this resolution be forwarded to all Grey County municipalities for support,

and that due to the timing of the up-coming provincial election, this resolution be forwarded to the Minister of Education and copied to the Minister of Mental Health, MPPs Bill Walker and Jim Wilson,
ahead of Council approval in accordance with section 25.6 on the County's procedural by-law.”

So this resolution is already in the hands of the provincial government, and will be in the queue before the provincial election. One has to hope that regardless of who wins the election, there'll be enough common sense to bring this to fruition. MPP Bill Walker has already talked to the Minister of Education about the resolution and received a very positive response.

I look at this as a game changer and an opportunity to fill a void for our children."



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