A team of McMaster researchers is conducting the first-ever Canadian study that explores the role schools play in the mental health of students, teachers and principals. The Offord Centre for Child Studies, a multidisciplinary research institute made up of experts from McMaster Children’s Hospital and the university’s health sciences faculty, is conducting a survey at 240 Ontario schools, 15 in Hamilton. Its goal is to gauge whether schools are doing enough to protect the mental health of staff and students and to give the provincial government suggestions as to how schools can improve in this area. Kathy Georgiades, an associate professor in psychology and behavioural neuroscience at McMaster and one of the study’s principal investigators, says about 15 per cent of children suffer from mental health disorders. Without proper diagnosis, they can fall behind academically and socially, and those setbacks can have ripple effects that last for years. “The burden of suffering associated with a mental health problem is quite large,” Georgiades said. “It really permeates so many different domains of a child’s life.”
The survey will be administered to children in Grades 6 to 12. It takes the students about 20 minutes to complete and asks questions about their well-being, including whether they feel the school’s rules are fair, whether they feel a sense of belonging, whether they’ve been bullied and whether they have someone at school they can count on for help and support. The answers will remain confidential. Parents are required to give their consent for their children to participate, but won’t be surveyed themselves. Teachers and principals are being asked about their students’ thoughts and behaviours, their own interactions with students, how they see students managing stress, and what mental health supports are available in their schools. The survey is part of a larger project called the 2014 Ontario Child Health Study. It’s a repeat of a groundbreaking 1983 project, also led by McMaster researchers that became the global benchmark for measuring children’s mental health. Results from the original study contributed to more than $1 billion of investment in federal and provincial programs and services. The Ontario Child Health Study is surveying families in 180 neighbourhoods across the province — and the schools for this particular branch of the project are in each of those neighbourhoods. This way, researchers can determine how each environment — children’s homes, neighbourhoods and schools — affects their mental well-being. Responses are being collected from more than 26,500 students, 3,500 teachers and 240 principals.
Georgiades and her team began the survey in December 2014 and have collected data from about 100 schools. They expect to complete the surveys by June and have a final report available for the Ministry of Education in January 2016.
This article first appeared The Spec, 24 March 2015.