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Mental Health in Canadian Schools

The CBC reported on October 7th 2014 that there may be a need for a “national strategy” to address the mental health needs of children in schools.  This clarion call comes amidst daily reports of PTSD and suicide in the military, the systemic abuse of aboriginal women, mass shootings, beheadings, and bombing. Luckily drones do not develop mental illness. But is this apparent mental health crisis something new?

Not really.  In fact, in the 1950s the Canadian government, in cooperation with the Provinces and the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), developed and tested a national mental health strategy. It was called the Forest Hill Village Project and it also targeted children in schools. Massive federal-provincial funding enabled the CMHA in cooperation with the U of T to bring teachers from across Canada to Toronto to train as mental health liaison officers. They returned to their schools ready to mentor other teachers in group psychotherapy techniques, and to identify and assist children with mental health issues.

Who was behind it?  The leader was John R. Seeley, a Home Child who emerged into the national limelight as a brilliant young sociologist with the U of T Department of Psychiatry; his colleague Martin Fischer, consulting psychiatrist at Browndale, a group home made famous in Allan King’s award-winning documentary, Warrendale; Aldwyn Stokes, founder of the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry, now the Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH); and Lila Frances Coates, a pediatric psychiatrist.

What did these mental health pioneers achieve?  Stokes went so far as to claim that the benefits of Seeley’s formula for free discussion in the classroom, the core therapeutic technique of the project, was “something proven”.  Then, why has their work been forgotten?  The same reasons that present calls for action are in danger of resulting in nothing more than another passing public relations initiative. We might count amongst them the narcissism of the experts; public fear and stigmatization; media romanticization; the impenetrability of massive corporate hierarchies; and the self-deception of elites who prefer tax-deductible charitable donations to meaningful political change that may upset the markets.  Indeed, it is no coincidence that they have again raised the mental health banner at a time of war.

It is now a century since the Great War when the mental health movement began in response to “shell shock”.  Seeley’s work was aimed at pacifying a population traumatized by the Cold War. Today, as our anxieties intensify in the face of higher expectations in the workplace and terror in the streets, the authorities again sense a threat to public order. But therapy is not thought control.  The healing process may in fact require far-reaching social change.

So, what is to be done?

We must pursue mental health programs in schools in a sustained, self-reflective and scientific manner; not as a short-term panacea designed to satisfy the interests of the elite.  They are already well taken-care of, but the people are suffering.

Dr. Paul Bentley (Ed. D.) is Head of History at King City Secondary School.
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