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Rethinking our education system on World Mental Health Day

Last spring I wrote a post about re-thinking our education system to prevent suicides on university campuses. It was written in response to the death of a student at the University of Toronto.

I could recycle that post now, just months later, following the death of another student in late September in the Bahen Centre for Technology.

In response, U of T’s vice-provost of students, issued a written statement: “The safety and well-being of our students are our top priorities … We’ve listened to concerns about the building and are putting in place measures that will improve safety.”

Will physical barriers help?

To reiterate, I don’t think installing physical barriers—temporary or permanent—to prevent kids from jumping to their deaths is the answer, though they may help deter a student in crisis.

Nor do I think beefing up counselling or access to mental health services on campus will put an end to student suicides.

Again, it will help, but as long as need exceeds the resources, there will always be kids who fall through the cracks.

The real solution, I think, requires educators and policy makers to start asking a different question: How do we create an education system that ensures kids not only survive, but thrive?

“Dream big and know that all things are possible.”

–John Bahen

What would John Bahen think?

Is it ironic that The Bahen Centre of Information Technology, the site of three student deaths, is the result of generous donations by John Bahen, one of Canada’s top civil engineers? 

Bahen passed away in his eighties in 2016, but he left his mark on this country with projects such as Saskatchewan’s Nipawin Dam, the Rodney Terminal in New Brunswick and the elevated portion of the Vancouver SkyTrain.

His life’s work was about anticipating stress as a fundamental calculation: Will the dam hold?

As the parent of a teenager with mental health challenges in the pivotal grade twelve year, I can tell you my own fundamental calculation: What is the value of a university education if it costs my kids their mental health—or worse, their lives?

How university and college presidents in the US would address mental health concerns

In August 2019, the American Council on Education released the results of a survey of Presidents at American colleges and universities. Of four hundred respondents:

  • Eight out of every 10 presidents indicated that student mental health has become more of a priority on their campus than it was three years ago;
  • 72% had reallocated or identified funds to reallocate to address the issue;
  • 75% said depression and anxiety were the top mental health concerns they hear about.

When asked the first action they would take if they had unlimited resources to dedicate to student mental health on campus, 58% said they would “hire more staff—mostly in the counselling center”

One in 10 presidents mentioned professional development for faculty and staff to “broaden the range of people who could help students.”

Is that the best we can do?

If ever there was a time and place for creative problem-solving, it’s in our education system. We could reach kids when they’re most at risk of developing mental health challenges, and give them the foundation they need to thrive as adults in our increasingly complex world.

The opportunity for policy makers and educators

To me, it’s an incredible opportunity for policy makers and educators.

But I worry when I see things like Learn Canada 2020 from the Council of Ministers of Education.

The Council of Ministers of Education was formed in 1967. It was created to serve as a mechanism to collaborate with government and education organizations and discuss policy issues.

They do things like sponsor research in education-related statistics, and develop reports on education indicators.

Learn Canada 2020 was created as a framework for education ministers to enhance Canada’s “education system, learning opportunities and overall education outcomes.”

It was a recognition of “the national interest in ensuring a healthy economy and the importance of education for economic development.”

You should read it and tell me if the Council’s strategic vision gives you a different sort of vision. Cogs in the wheel, maybe? Strangely, it makes think of the Umpa Lumpas in Willy Wonka’s factory, only in black and white and without the singing and chocolate.

What will Learn Canada 2030 look like?

Other ideas for a healthy economy and a healthy population

Sometimes, I like to imagine what things might be like if we took a step back and asked ourselves, what are we all doing? What is the point of education? To get a job? Is that it? What if we stepped away from this century’s old model and did things a little differently?

Here are two women who are the root of my latest fantasies.

Ann Douglas

Ann Douglas is the author of Happy Parents, Happy Kids, a highly recommended guide to parenting in our stressed-out, anxiety-ridden, technology-driven world.

She also wrote an amazing book called Parenting Through the Storm, an A-Z guide to parenting kids with mental health issues in Canada.  

In the early chapters of Happy Parents, Happy Kids, she asks a simple question that has plagued me ever since I read it months ago:

Why does the school day not match the work day?

Seriously, ponder this for a moment. As of 2016, 69% of Canadian households have two working parents. How might this shift in scheduling change the way we raise our kids?

What would it mean if your workday ended at 3pm or 4pm. How would it change the dinner hour or your own mental health? On the flipside, would that lost hour or two at work bring down your business or upend our education system?

I can barely even imagine it. It seems so impossible, yet as I write this in the darkness of early morning, I’m thinking soon it will be daylight savings. As complicated as it sounds to have an entire country set back their clocks, we do it every year, like clockwork.

We could change the hours of school. Or work. Or both.

“We’re producing a generation of students who are incredibly highly structured, but they’re going to be entering an increasingly ambiguous world.”

Sarah Stein Greenberg

Sarah Stein Greenberg

Sarah Stein Greenberg is the executive director of the Hasso Platner Institute of Design (the d.School) and an expert in design thinking.

In 2014, she gave a presentation at Wired by Design. It was called “How to Reimagine College.” She asked, “what is the future of the on-campus experience in the age of online learning?”

To answer this question, she equipped her students with video cameras and sent them out into the world, first on campus and then to continual learning environments such as SpaceX and Cirque de Soleil.

Her students came back with four ‘what if?’ ideas:

  1. College wasn’t just a time in your life, but lasted a lifetime. Maybe 18 isn’t the right age for every student to move to post-secondary education.
  2. Students moved through college at their own pace. They could stretch the experience over say 6 years, and step out into the working world to test what they’ve learned and step back into college with new insight and perspective.
  3. College wasn’t about accumulating information, but developing competencies. Transcripts documented the skills you’ve learned versus the courses you took and the grades you received.
  4. Students declared missions, not majors. They applied to functional education systems–the school of renewable energy or the school of hunger or, even–the very thought gives me goosebumps–the school of mental health!

Such delicious food for thought on World Mental Health Day!

Further reading:

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