Lessons I’ve Learned in Mental Health and Education

Posted by on January 24, 2020

Written by Erin O’Rourke, RP (Qualifying).

At 16, I was a straight-A grade 11 student, had many close friends, good relationships with my family, enjoyed school, and was well on my way to graduation. At 17, I was failing many of my grade 12 classes, had isolated myself from friends, had nearly stopped attending school altogether, and my relationships with family members were declining. I was giving up. How could only one year make such a difference in my life? What happened? And why didn’t anyone seem to know what to do?

I made it through those times, but not without picking up some bumps and bruises along the way – life lessons. Lessons that I’ve carried forward into my career, one that I’ve devoted to working with vulnerable youth through my teaching and counselling. And the truth is, that means all youth – we are all vulnerable at some point or another in our lives.

In my case, my personal mental health was suffering. At that time, there wasn’t as much information available about how mental illness impacts youth. Our parents and teachers were left wondering, and often fumbling, around how to help.

A great start is getting the facts.


In any given year, one in five people will experience a mental health problem or mental illness. Mental health doesn’t discriminate; it affects people of all ages, education levels, socioeconomic backgrounds, and cultures. When we look at the stats for youth, it is estimated that somewhere between 10-20% of Canadian youth are impacted by a mental illness or disorder. (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2020).

In those aged 12-19, an estimated 5% of males and 12% of females have already experienced an episode of major depression. Suicide is the second-most leading cause of death in Canadian youth aged 15-24 (accidents being the 1st); an estimated 4000 people die each year from suicide. (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2020).

The implications are clear. As parents and educators, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to educate our youth and support them through mental health challenges.


In our busy education system, students struggling with mental health challenges can often fly under the radar. Sometimes they’re just tired or having a tough day, but sometimes it’s much more.

It’s important to know what to look for:

  • Have you noticed a marked decline in the student’s attendance?

  • Are they having more difficulty than usual in focusing on school-related tasks?

  • Do you notice a decline in the student’s motivation to succeed?

  • Has your student become increasingly forgetful or disorganized?

  • Are they having increased difficulty completing and handing in work?

  • Do you notice a marked change in the student’s overall mood?

  • Does your student seem increasingly fatigued or have their eating patterns changed?

  • Do you notice a significant decline in the student’s attention to personal hygiene?

If you’re noticing some of these changes, it might be time to check in with that student. How you approach that check-in can make a significant difference in how things go from there. Here are tips on how to support your students.


Use the right words around mental health and model that it’s okay to talk about it 

When I was struggling as a high-school student, I had no idea how to articulate what was going on with me, or how to ask for help. Sometimes we, as adults, need to say the things that kids are either too scared to say out loud, or that they don’t know how to say. 

TeenMentalHealth.org suggests that we can start by learning how to accurately and effectively talk about mental health using the right language. In doing so, we help youth build their own capacity around accurately expressing emotions, and we reduce the risk of minimizing experiences that are potentially related to very serious mental health challenges.

Know how to best respond when students return to school 

In my experience, one of the biggest fears kids have about returning to school after any period of absence is answering questions from teachers and other students about why they’ve been away. I distinctly remember working with one grade 10 student who had been away for two weeks due to significant family challenges. Upon his return, I escorted him to one of his classes and despite our preparations, the teacher greeted him with, “Where have you been, how can you expect to get caught up after this long away?” 

Immediately, the student shut down and didn’t return to school the next day. In that moment, that teacher had the opportunity to make or break his return, and it broke. It’s not helpful or fair to publicly ‘out’ or ‘shame’ students about their absences in front of their peers.

Instead, help prepare the student for answering tough questions. You might say, “It can be hard having your teachers and peers ask where you’ve been, did you want some help in making up some prepared responses?” When they do return to classes, educators can greet them warmly, acknowledge the absence, and offer support. This might sound like, “I’ve noticed you’ve been away for a while, is everything okay? I’m glad to see you’re back – how can I help you get caught up?” 

When we intentionally consider how we frame our responses to student absences, we are more likely to notice an immediate difference in the student’s willingness to open up and work with us toward rebuilding their success in school.

Lighten the load

As educators, we have the capacity to flex on assignments, deadlines, learning strategies and spaces. Sometimes this flexibility can make all the difference.

Imagine for a moment that you have five deadlines you need to meet for work, and you are in the midst of dealing with your own mental health challenge or family crisis. Imagine now that your boss attempts to alleviate that pressure by offering understanding, removing two of those deadlines, and offering extensions on the other three. Can you feel that weight being lifted from your chest? Can you see the light at the end of the tunnel now?

The same is true for our students. Don’t assume that just because they are at school, they are prepared for learning. They might be exhausted, hungry, emotionally-drained, stressed, or experiencing any other range of distressing emotions. They may still have things going on at home that are preventing them from being able to focus.

Whenever possible, offer to reduce the complexity of assignments, or the amount of work required to be completed. Offer lesson notes in advance, or make your lessons available online so students can attempt to keep up from home during absences. Work with students in a collaborative way to figure out what works best for both of you, given the circumstances. You’d be surprised to hear the innovative ideas kids have for how to build their own successful learning plan!

Set and maintain the expectation of school

For Educators

For youth with mental health issues, maintaining the expectation to stay engaged in school is critical, even though their engagement may look different.

As a grade 12 struggling student, I remember approaching one of my teachers and telling her that I was having a very difficult time. Her response (with the best of intentions) was to ask me if I needed a break from school. My response, as a 17-year-old teen, was “Yes! Less school! Finally someone understands…..”.

However, nothing was resolved. I was left with an empty feeling, and was now short credits to graduate. Had that teacher known to dig a little deeper, to ask a little more, I might’ve stayed engaged in her class and had someone to talk to.

For Parents

School needs to remain the preferred option during the day. All too often in a digital world, kids are left home by well-meaning parents who must work during the day. The wifi is on and youtube, video games, and social media are running. It’s so difficult, and parents worry their kids will be lonely and depressed, but it’s time to turn the wifi off during the school-day if it’s being used for entertainment. 

Overall, parents, it’s important to stay connected to your child’s teacher. If that isn’t working, stay connected to the administrator or guidance counsellor. If that isn’t working, reach out to a counsellor in the community that specializes in supporting your child and your family with this challenging work. We are out there!

Know your board’s policies around mental health

Teachers have a responsibility to be prepared for receiving a student with mental health challenges and knowing how to respond. Here are some ways to get started:


I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I had parents who were able to persevere through watching their daughter struggle, and they stuck in there for the long haul. I had the resources to get myself through my final high school credits, and move on to a fulfilling career in both education and mental health. Combining the two has been my greatest joy, knowing that I can make a difference to youth both in schools and out in the community.

My final tip for supporting our youth with any challenge is to very simply put yourself in their shoes.

  • Have you ever gone to work completely exhausted?

  • Have you ever had a sleepless night because you can’t stop worrying?

  • Have you ever had a fight with a significant person in your life before work?

  • Have you ever had thoughts that make you think something is wrong with you?

  • Have you ever had a day where you feel horrible and like everyone is looking at you?

  • Have you ever had so much work build up that you feel like throwing in the towel?

Well, so have your students! Sometimes just a little bit of compassion goes a long way. Think about what you might want from your boss or co-workers on days like these, and maybe that’s just what your kids need too!

We offer workshops for Educators and Parents!

We have deep respect and gratitude for both of these groups as we know they are coming alongside teens in really important ways with roles which can be very challenging some days.

The workshop for parents focuses on how to connect and communicate with your teen. We’ve done this with parents only and have also done it with teens and parents together.

The workshop for educators is to resource and support them as they navigate a range of social, developmental, and mental health concerns with teens.

The fee for the workshops are negotiated on a case by case basis. Our primary goal in offering these workshops is to get the word out about us and our work, so we don’t want them to be cost prohibitive.

If you are interested in another workshop other then these two, please contact us about what you have in mind and we’ll consider it.

Want to learn more? Contact us!

Call us at 416-565-4504 or send us an email info@counsellingtorontoteens.com

About Erin O’Rourke, RP (qualifying)

Erin began her career in education, teaching with the Calgary Board for ten years before making the move to Toronto in 2017. In that time, Erin focused her work in special-education settings, from gifted programs to school and hospital-based mental health programs. Along with counselling, Erin now teaches with the Toronto District School Board, specializing in programming for at-risk learners. Erin has worked with a wide range of young people over her career, and now focuses her counselling around supporting youth and young adults whose lives have been impacted by mental health challenges.

Erin was recently interviewed by Global News in a story from their  four-part series about the transition between high school and “the real world”. She talked about the impact of big decision on a young brain.


Resources for Both Parents and Educators:

Web resources:

TeenMentalHealth.org – Spend some time playing in this website! There are so many resources embedded within it; you’ll find sections for learning on mental health issues youth face; videos on their YouTube channel, printable fact-sheets and guides, a mental-health curriculum guide for yourself, and links to further training like the free online course Mental Health Literacy for the Classroom offered in partnership with UBC

AnxietyCanada.com – an estimated 5% of Canada’s population is dealing with an anxiety disorder (CMHA, 2019), and many of those are our students; learn more about anxiety with this resource, including how it presents in youth; encourage your students to check out the interactive AnxietyCanada – Youth page to gather their own information

KidsHelpPhone.ca – not only does this organization provide immediate support to youth in crisis, they offer a wealth of information on issues that youth face each day; use it in your classroom as a launching point for conversations; KNOW HOW TO HELP your students by knowing about this resource!

A Few of Erin’s Favourite Print Resources:

Greene, R.W. (2014). Lost at school: why our kids with behavioral challenges are falling through the cracks and how we can help them. Scribner: New York.

Greene, R.W. (2014). The explosive child: a new approach for understanding and parenting easily frustrated, chronically inflexible children. HarperCollins Publishers: New York.

Jensen, F.E. & Nutt, A.E. (2015). The teenage brain: a neuroscientist’s survival guide to raising adolescents and young adults. HarperCollins Publishers: New York.

Seigel, D.J. (2015). Brainstorm: the power and purpose of the teenage brain. Penguin Random House LLC: New York

Simmons, R. (2011). Odd girl out: the hidden culture of aggression in girls. Harcourt Trade Publishing: Orlando.

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