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Education Student Advocates for Mental Health

May 31, 2021

Having struggled with negative mental health herself, a Saskatchewan youth, Kiah Holness, is concerned about the impacts of COVID-19 on children and youth in primary and secondary schools. As a result of her personal experiences, and her future dreams of being a secondary teacher in this province, she has begun working to advocate for a shift in the understanding of mental health within the education system. Kiah is currently in the process of advocating for a shift in schools’ attendance procedures that would see excused mental health days within primary and secondary schools: 

“… I want to give youth the tools and the strength to be able to identify and speak about mental health, and not feel shame when they need to take a day in order to serve their mental state … I am proposing a shift in school attendance policies in Saskatchewan. This shift would allow parents/guardians/caregivers to identify “mental health” as an excusable absence, rather than having to use the word “sick” when they call into schools to account for their child’s absence.”

Additionally, Kiah would like to see that schools, based on their resources and contexts, establish an appropriate monitoring system by which, after a certain number of mental health absences, school and community supports will be sought to support the student. The data will be monitored to proactively assess what individual and school-wide resources and interventions might be needed to best support not only students, but teachers, administrators, and school staff as well.   

A third aspect of Kiah’s idea includes (where possible) “in-school” mental health days that could be granted at the discretion of, and in conjunction with, school personnel, and/or parents/guardians. Kiah believes that: 

“sometimes when someone needs a mental health day, the worst thing is for them to be at home, alone. Also, for some students, home is a possible source of stress, anxiety, and trauma, and therefore being at home poses a safety risk. The idea of the in-school mental health day, while requiring contextual and logistical consideration, offers the possibility for students to have a mental health day but in a supervised environment”. 

One of the benefits Kiah sees for this idea is that the data obtained from attendance records can support proactive interventions in the form of mental health professional development, resources, and support: 

“So, for example, if there are 200 recorded mental health absences in a month at a particular school, or more broadly many in a particular district, that data can support the allocation of resources to better understand that particular context’s needs.” 

“I worry deeply for our youth and all of the opportunities that this pandemic has taken away from them … I often think about what it must feel like for youth to be constantly readjusting in their routines and safety blankets; school in-person, remote learning, sports 6ft apart, no sports at all, seeing your friends one day and then not for six weeks. COVID has reminded me that at the end of the day, we must begin by attending to our, and others’ mental health and well-being” 

Kiah recounts that the topic of mental health at school was rarely talked about, leaving many to feel that they were ‘surviving in silence’ and uninformed about the effects that their mental health was having on their brains and bodies.

“When I think back to when [negative mental health] was the most apparent to me, it was when I was in the school system 5 days a week. I think it was most apparent here because it was just another aspect of me, besides being a person of colour, that “othered” me … Mental health was rarely talked about in school, and if it was, it was spoken about as rare or only categorized with illnesses … It was never portrayed in a “common,” “relatable,” or destigmatized way. The truth was, and is, many students were suffering in silence from generalized anxiety and depression. I was one of these students who felt lost, but who also didn’t even know how to identify what was going on with me.”

“I think bringing this attendance policy shift into our schools is a concrete, and relatively simple way to show children and youth the commitment that their schools have to their mental health and well-being, and will ultimately save lives and reshape a future generation when it comes to this topic … It will emphasize that we are all in this together trying to navigate all of the feelings and emotions floating around in our brain, and that yes, even adults go through it and it is okay not to be okay – but what’s not okay is not doing anything about it.”

If you would like to learn more about this initiative, please contact:

Nathalie Reid: Nathalie.reid@uregina.ca
Kiah Holness: holness.kiah@gmail.com

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