Life Lessons – Bringing Mental Health To Class

Small boy staring out over Lake Ontario

Last week I attended a symposium on Adolescent Mental Health, hosted by Ontario Shores Centre For Mental Health Sciences.

The event opened with their short documentary called ‘Talk To Someone: You’re Not Alone’ which gave a voice to teens and their families battling mental health issues, and delivered some food for thought:


  • Mental illness affects 1 in 5 young people at any time.
  • An estimated two-thirds of young people with mental illness such as Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder, Depression and Anxiety Disorders, are not receiving the help they need.
  • The first symptoms of mental illness appear between the ages of 15 and 24.
  • Mental illness makes the things you do in your life, such as school, work and socializing, much more difficult.
  • Early diagnosis and treatment are keys to a more healthy future.


The on-camera interviews were a powerful medium in helping make a difficult subject relatable on a personal level. When one young man said “Stigma makes you shrink” heads nodded unconsciously in the audience as he went on to explain how stigma surrounding mental illness can sometimes be harder to bear than the illness itself.



Mental Health is a basic human right – no different from the umbrella term of plain ‘Health’. The film emphasized this and it was a concept further built upon by internationally renowned adolescent mental health expert Dr Stanley Kutcher, a leader in mental health research, advocacy, training, policy and services innovation, who went on to explain how we all share the same genome but have little tweaks here and there that account for the different perceptions, preferences, reactions and responses that make each of us individual.

He did such a great job of peeling the perception of mental illness away from the person and presenting it as an attribute, not a foundation, that I was compelled to scrawl ‘This is an illness – it’s not you’ in my notebook and circle it for emphasis. I wanted to hang onto that thought to remind myself next time the humiliating mist of a BPD episode descends.



Dr Kutcher is helping deliver a program to schools that aims to promote mental health literacy among students. He believes you can’t expect people to engage with something if they’re not literate in that area. Mental health literacy means:

    1. Understanding and recognizing good mental health and how to achieve it.
    2. Understanding mental disorders and recognizing and dealing with illness.
    3. Addressing stigma – mental illness faces the highest rates of stigma related to health.
    4. Help-seeking efficacy – knowing where to go and how to get help.

He explained how you start in the early grades by talking about feelings and expression – helping kids understand what emotion is, what thinking is, what behaviour is – then you introduce illnesses that commonly affect those age-groups, like ADHD and autism, that kids are familiar with through classroom contact with peers.

As he spoke I realised how easy it is to start a dialogue with kids across the dinner table or in those delicious moments when you find yourself in conversation with an emergent personality hungry for knowledge. We make a point of telling them about ‘Stranger Danger’ – discussing what makes them feel happy or sad is a walk in the park by comparison yet doesn’t get the importance it deserves.

You’d think having travelled out of the lonely wasteland of mental illness and learnt to manage my condition, I’d be great at nurturing an awareness of emotional health in others, and while this is something I try to do through my writing, Dr Kutcher made me realize there was much more I could be doing for my children.

Something about the clunky jargon of mental health labelling makes it seem an insurmountable subject to explain to a young child but really it’s as simple as talking about how we feel. I was suddenly made aware there was so much more I could do to lay the foundations for communicating feelings.



The bulk of the evening took the form of a question and answer session in which Dr Kutcher took a handful of questions from the audience at a time and covered them in engaging dialogues spanning Anxiety, Sleep, neuroscience, social history and the healthcare system.

He compared the schools of fifty years ago – limited primarily to academic learning, where parents had an unwritten social pact with the state, and the state discharged its responsibilities through the school or the jail – with the schools of today that are increasingly expected to teach children life skills facilitating their ability to function socially in the wider world, without the resources (not to mention extra time) this requires.

He listed the number of years it takes for a GP, a paediatrician and others in the healthcare sector to qualify, then told us how much of that time was spent covering mental health. Out of qualifications that take upwards of four years to earn, only 2-4 weeks are devoted to an issue that will account for the majority of visitors to the doctor’s waiting room. This is a sad reflection of the high level of stigma that exists towards mental health from doctors and nurses.

It’s all arse about face, we’re devoting most of our energy to the wrong area – no wonder we have the problems we do with bullying, adolescent suicide, and anti-social behaviour. The first step to overcoming these is communication, but how can you communicate something you’re not even aware of? Yup, we’re back to mental health literacy again. Coupled with pro-social programming in schools it will help students to…





I think it’s fantastic that this kind of initiative is happening and I want to see more parents get behind it and give it (and consequently themselves and their kids) the support it deserves. I was thrilled to see a number of people I know from the teaching profession present in the audience, most of all the Vice Principal at my own children’s school. These are people who came out on their own time to learn about something that’s so easy to push aside. Also present were foster carers and parents like ourselves.

Dr Kutcher did a great job of talking to us on a personal level, explaining widely misunderstood terms, answering personal concerns and delivering his responses in an entertaining, informative and compassionate manner. No question was irrelevant, no topic dismissed.

A number of people applauded the initiative but questioned the availability of resources following diagnosis. It can be a lottery getting the help required as fewer health professionals choose to specialize in mental health and most decline the training courses made available to them, and there were a few sad tales of parents left completely alone by the state – bludgeoned by bureaucracy and unsupported by the framework put in place to assist them.



Dr Kutcher counselled us to make our voices heard, share our concerns. We know how the system works, start at the lowest levels – pester councillors, reach out to one another – together we’re stronger, get the schools, SCC’s etc. on board. Put this on the agenda and keep pushing it until the wheels start to turn.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and we won’t turn this around overnight, but there is hope. He reminded us how cancer was the elephant in the room a few decades ago and now people are happy to wear wristbands and run for cancer. Once we acknowledge how inadequate the system is to meet these needs, the sooner we can stop relying on an imagined safety net and get something solid in place.

Thanks, Dr Kutcher and Ontario Shores for giving us this opportunity to refresh our determination. I hope there will be others.


By Aisha Ashraf

An autistic Irish immigrant in a cross-cultural marriage, Aisha Ashraf is the archetypal outlander, writing to root herself through place and perspective. Published in The Rumpus, The Maine Review, River Teeth, HuffPost and elsewhere, her work explores the legacy of trauma, the nature of being an outsider and the narrow confines of belonging. She currently lives in Canada.

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