Beyond pathology: How caring school cultures impact student mental health literacy

Dr. Ann Skelcher K-12 Leave a Comment

about a 4 minute read...

It’s the last day of a conference on student mental health and well-being. I’m sitting in a large hotel ballroom surrounded by hundreds of school district leaders. Over the past two days, we’ve heard speakers from across the country approach this important topic in many ways.

I watch as the final keynote speaker, Dr. Stanley Kutcher, puts his first slide up on the screen. In bold print, it declares: “Human connection is the key to improving the human condition. It lifts us up…” His statement lands as a bit of a surprise at my table. Some might assume a renowned psychiatrist would be more focused on the medical side of mental health.  

He continues to surprise us in the way he reframes the issue. Dr. Kutcher starts with a standard definition: “Mental health is a state of successful performance of mental function, resulting in productive activities, fulfilling relationships with people, and the ability to change and cope with adversity.”

Dr. Kutcher proposes that we are using the language of pathology to describe normal, and in fact, healthy human emotions.

As the number of North American youth who rate their mental health as poor has increased, so have concerns about school safety. As education leaders grapple with this duo of challenges, Dr. Kutcher says the tendency has been to operate without a clear definition or solid research on mental health. As a result, districts often gravitate to untested, quick-fix approaches.  

While he’s careful to point out that mental illness is serious and students showing clinical symptoms require treatment, he adds that we tend to overgeneralize mental health conditions. For example, we sometimes confuse experiencing anxiety with having an anxiety disorder. He reminds us that having test anxiety is a healthy response. It encourages positive practices like studying and going to bed early.

Dr. Kutcher proposes that we are using the language of pathology to describe normal, and in fact, healthy human emotions.

Student mental health as a cultural challenge

Dr. Kutcher flips the focus beyond pathology. Student mental wellness, he says, is a cultural challenge—not a health problem.

He tells us we’ve been looking for solutions to student mental health in the wrong places and asks us to consider approaches that have been proven to work. He points to the second half of the mental health definition above: having fulfilling relationships and developing resilience to cope with adversity.   

When done well, mental health curriculums teach students how to obtain and maintain good mental health.

When youth experience homes, schools, and communities that foster connection and positive relationships, and meaningful contributions to the lives of others, they will develop resilience. They will know to reach out, be it to an adult or a fellow student, when they are experiencing isolation, anxiety, or fear. His research bears this out.

When viewed through this cultural lens, supporting student social-emotional wellness takes on a new shape for school districts.

First, as Dr. Kutcher states, it means adopting curriculums that support mental health. When done well, mental health curriculums teach students how to obtain and maintain good mental health. They learn about mental health disorders, their treatments, how and when to seek help, and what to expect when they do. In other words, they develop mental health literacy.

By learning, practicing and mastering the above, students become proficient in monitoring and maintaining their mental health. It’s no different from any other life skill they might learn.

Caring school cultures support mental well-being

Listening to Dr. Kutcher speak, I can’t help but connect what he’s saying with what I’ve learned working at Thoughtexchange. We spend plenty of time helping districts create powerful school cultures, and he has brought the importance of that work home for me.

He asks us to consider this question: What are the basic needs for good mental health? The answers he proposes are startling in their simplicity: exercise, adequate sleep, proper nutrition, support from those who care when it’s needed, and the ability to help others in need.

Exercise, sleep, and nutrition are responsibilities schools share with parents. However, when I consider the last part, I believe it’s solely the responsibility of educators to create caring school cultures where kids feel comfortable asking for and offering help.

A caring culture is one based on trust, both with and between students. Leaders are responsible for engendering that trusting relationship and ensuring all staff understand its importance. Caring cultures must also give students a sense of belonging and adequate support to build resilience.

From a school safety perspective, campuses with cultures built on trust, belonging and support also become naturally more secure places.

Trust, belonging and support—these three critical elements don’t come from any program. They’re not some add-on. They must be ubiquitous and embedded.

It might sound like a tricky trio to wrestle down, but it’s worth the effort. If we look at the impact of a school culture that’s lacking these elements, we find a campus on which students fail to do their best. Educators who have climbed their way out of such cultures know the benefits building cultures of trust can have on student behavior, motivation, engagement, and learning of all kinds.

From a school safety perspective, campuses with cultures built on trust, belonging and support also become naturally more secure places.

Students who feel connected to their peers, supported by adults, and a sense of ownership of their schools are much less likely to commit acts of violence. They know when and where to seek help, which gives options besides hurting others.

Human connection is the key

I watch heads nodding throughout the ballroom as Dr. Kutcher speaks to the cultural underpinnings of the mental health challenge and calls for curriculums that support mental health literacy for students.

At the end of the presentation, I can’t help but reflect on what Dr. Kutcher shared in his opening slide. I wholeheartedly believe that human connection is the key to improving the human condition. It does lift us up.

Building connection in large schools is a significant undertaking. However, open communication is critical for letting students (and staff) know that they belong, that they matter and that they can influence what happens at their school.

When students are learning mental health literacy in classrooms and schools that foster the best of human connection, the solution becomes much more powerful. Creating cultures based on open, trustful, caring communication will surely help us turn the rising tide in statistics on mental health issues.  

About the Author

Dr. Ann Skelcher

Ann is our Senior Engagement Consultant and comes to Thoughtexchange from a 34 year career in education, eight of which she spent serving as a classroom and special education teacher. She then moved into leadership roles as vice-principal and principal at both the elementary and secondary levels. Ann’s doctoral program in educational leadership centred on school crisis recovery and provided opportunity for her to look reflexively at the role of school leaders. As well, she has shared her work on school culture, parent engagement, and student assessment in BC, Alberta and Nunavut.Time with her supportive and loving partner, two grown children and four grandchildren as well as quiet time in the garden, yoga, and forest walks keep Ann energized and balanced.

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