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York prof launches Caring Minds, mental health Web site for students, teachers and parents in Grades 7-12

York prof launches Caring Minds, mental health Web site for students, teachers and parents in Grades 7-12

Despite increased awareness and education, mental health and mental health issues are still surrounded by stigmas for many Canadians. York Professor Megan Davies is helping to challenge prevalent stereotypes and to encourage more dialogue about mental health issues in Canada. She is using her academic research to give students in Grades 7 to 12 the tools and knowledge they need to understand mental health both within their peer group and within the community.

Right: Megan Davies

Davies and University of Victoria Professor E. Anne Marshall are in the final stages of a community-informed curriculum project that will provide middle- and secondary-school teachers in Ontario and British Columbia with a set of innovative, cross-disciplinary teaching units they can integrate into the classroom. The Youth & Mental Health project is funded by a Collaborative Faculty Incentive Grant from ResearchImpact, which is a York University and University of Victoria knowledge mobilization initiative. The project is the result of a series of consultations with community groups, educators, and psychiatric survivors and it will offer students a wide range of perspectives on mental well-being. The goal is to facilitate critical thinking on this sensitive – and often controversial – topic, and to explore interrelated themes of diversity and social justice.

Davies got the idea for the project in an undergraduate class she taught at York over five years ago. Her students – inspired by the material they were exploring on the history of mental health in Canada – told her that mental health issues should be tackled in the classroom much earlier in a student’s education. “I really took that to heart,” she notes. “They were right; we need to talk to their younger selves.”

A series of community consultations were held in Toronto and Victoria. In September, Davies and Marshall presented four draft teaching units to middle- and secondary-school focus groups for feedback and criticism. Feedback from the groups was integrated into the units and the researchers began to develop a Web site that would house the teaching units and other resources. Caring Minds launched at the end of January and it is rich with lesson plans, hands-on activities, resources and helpful learning objectives.

Learners explore, across cultures and history, the shifting contours of what is, and what has been regarded as, normal mental health in the first teaching unit, Understanding, Experiencing & Equity. The lessons in the unit encourage students to consider where stereotypes about mental health come from, how they impact individuals and communities, and what can be done to combat these negative responses. In one of the activities, students are asked to discuss passages from the diary of a young woman named Lara Gilbert who lived in Vancouver during the 1980s and 1990s and struggled with depression. “The idea is to get students to think about what life is like for someone with mental health issues,” says Davies. “What better way to provoke discussion than through the writings of someone who has actually dealt with the challenges, the discrimination and the struggle for well-being.”

Traditionally, mental health patients in Canada were sent to live at institutions for extended periods of time, if not their entire lives. In the 1960s and 1970s, improved treatment options and a shift in ideology occurred; governments and health professionals started to advocate for the deinstitutionalization of mental health care. The idea was to integrate – rather than isolate – patients into the community. The second teaching unit, Self-Determination & Activism, provides a snapshot into the conditions of mental health institutions and explores what the shift in practice meant for those living with mental health issues.

As Davies notes, though integrating individuals into the community may have been a noble idea, it has been a difficult and flawed process. Insufficient community services, limited health care, and a lack of funding for resources have prevented mental health patients from getting the support they need. Instead, the most powerful force for positive change has often come from psychiatric survivors themselves who have united against discrimination and pushed for better living conditions. Students in the second unit examine patients’ rights and reflect on the mixed freedoms and hardships that community living can provide.

Housing, Homelessness & Poverty, the focus of the third teaching unit, asks students to think about complex questions such as: Why are people with mental health issues vulnerable to being homeless? Should safe, affordable housing be considered a fundamental right? Highlights of the unit include surprisingly grim figures about the state of homelessness in Canada and an activity that gets students to create skits that portray the real-life stories they’ve read in class.

The last teaching unit, Well-Being, Health Care & Treatment, looks at positive mental health strategies and resources. It also examines mental health care through the lens of human rights. Lessons are complemented by historical archives, cartoons and artwork.

“Each of the four teaching units draw heavily on personal experiences, historical documents, poetry and graphic art in order to help students gain a more comprehensive and personal understanding of the complex aspects of mental health,” says Davies. “The lessons are interactive and designed to encourage a deeper learning experience through personal reflection and engagement in classroom discussion.”

Davies, who teaches in the Health & Society Program in York's Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, continues to exchange ideas with community partners on revisions for the teaching units. She hopes to develop more units in the future and to have them linked to curriculum in other provinces, translated so that they can be accessed by francophone students and reworked for aboriginal communities. Davies also welcomes suggestions for improvement from students. In fact, she says students played a key role in the overall success of the project. “A lot of the work was done by youth – from the original artwork on the Web site to data entry and research,” Davies notes. “This was very much a youth-centred project and it only made sense to involve them at each phase.”

The project has already attracted media attention in Victoria's Times-Colonist.

The curriculum project is part of a larger heritage initiative that is funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research. As part of that initiative, Davies has been active in the creation of another Web site, The History of Madness in Canada, which serves as a research, resource and educational hub on mental health issues.

For more information on Davies’ research, e-mail

By Kristin Taylor, communications coordinator, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies

Republished courtesy of YFile – York University’s daily e-bulletin