Being Proactive I

Being Proactive 1: Supporting Children and Youth Mental Health and Wellness in Schools

On February 16–17, 2012, The Department of Justice, Ministry of Children and Youth Services, York University Center for Education and CommunityThe Toronto District School Board and The Youth Association for Academics, Athletics and Character Education hosted a collaborative conference in the North York area of Toronto. Entitled Being Proactive: Supporting Children and Youth Mental Health and Wellness in Schools and Communities, the conference took as its specific focus the impact of violence, poverty, racism, loss/bereavement, abandonment and neglect, street/gang life, incarceration, and institutional and community apathy on the mental health of children and youth, especially those living in the city’s poor and racialized communities.

This conference  explored the depth and breadth of these challenges while examining how various parties – educators, mental health professionals, front-line workers, children and youth professionals from the various social service sectors, and individuals working in the criminal justice system – can take a proactive approach to supporting children and youth in schools and communities.  A significant number of children and youth from racialized communities exposed to violence, racism, poverty and the aforementioned noisome continue to underachieve academically thereby paving the way for their ensnarement in the school to prison vortex. Many scholars, community children and youth advocates argue that there is an inextricable link between educational attrition and exposure to the aforementioned negative environment factors, usually culminating in a life of poverty, incarceration or death.

From an early age, children living in the city’s poor and racialized communities are frequently exposed  to the use of drugs, criminogenic influences and random violence.  They witness injury, suffering, and death, and they respond to these events with fear and grief, often experiencing ruptures in their development.  The list of psychological reactions is long and grim: self-hatred, profound loss of trust in the community and the world, tattered internalized moral values and ethics of caring, and a breaking down of the inner and outer sense of security. They are particularly vulnerable to traumatic stress, physical illnesses and related behavioral and academic abnormalities (Parsons, 1994).  Many professionals working with children and youth in educational institutions, the criminal justice system and community-based settings  continue to be alarmed at the large number of children and youth suffering from mental health issues and in many cases concurrent disorders.

Several studies have found that the majority of children exposed to violence (defined as personally witnessing or directly experiencing a violent event) display symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and a substantial minority develop clinically significant PTSD.  However, the harmful effects of violence extend beyond symptoms of PTSD. Exposure to violence is also associated with depression and behavioral problems. In addition, children exposed to violence are more likely to have poor school performance, decreased IQ and reading ability, lower grade-point averages and more days of school absence, even if they do not develop PTSD.  Exposure to violence also may interfere with the important developmental milestones of childhood and adolescence (Jama, 2003).

Some 250 participants (mostly from schools, community-based agencies and the social service sector) spent a day and a half hearing five keynote presentations and attending breakout sessions of their choice. A number of speakers and presenters emphasized the importance of responding to problematic behaviour as a mental health problem and consequently acknowledging and mitigating the aforementioned noisome (the impact of violence, poverty, racism, loss/bereavement, abandonment and neglect, street/gang life, incarceration, and institutional and community apathy) that seem to be sources of the mental health issues that have become disproportionately prevalent in particular communities and among particular groups of students.   As Sarah Yanosy and Landa Harrison of the Sanctuary Institute astutely declare, “Instead of asking ‘what’s wrong with you?,’ we need to ask ‘what happened to you?’

The conference reflected the beginning of a paradigm shift to an exploratory and proactive approach to mental health issues in children and youth as opposed to an apathetic and reactive approach currently employed by numerous ministries, school boards, institutions and organizations. However, that shift is by no means complete. Presenters looked at the impact of racialization and trauma on youth and its manifestations in youth violence, the criminal justice system, and the experience of youth in the education system – all through the lens of mental health.  There is a direct correlation between the segment of the population most affected by the variables impacting mental health and those who are the victims and perpetrators of violence, those who are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system and those who are the lowest achievers in our educational systems.

The keynote speakers were:

  • Dr. Chris Spence, then Director of Education for the Toronto District School Board, who welcomed participants on behalf of the TDSB;
  • Dr. Horace Levy, lecturer and researcher at the University of West Indies at Mona, Jamaica, who spoke on reducing violence in Jamaica through the Peace Management Initiative with which he has been involved;
  • Dr. Scot Wortley, Professor of Criminology at the University of Toronto, who addressed the causes of youth violence in the Canadian context;
  • Dr. Kwame McKenzie, psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto, who spoke on the trauma caused by racism and poverty and its impact on mental health;
  • Sarah Yanosy, Director of the Sanctuary Institute at the Andrus Children’s Center in Yonkers, NY, and Landa Harrison, Licensed Professional Therapist and staff member of the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice at Drexel University in Philadelphia, who described the Sanctuary Model for dealing with trauma.