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Teaching 9-year-olds about mental illness

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Kids in elementary school in Nova Scotia are learning how to recognize mental illness under new curriculum

People with symptoms of mental illness often wait years before seeking treatment. And by the time they do, some will have the odds stacked against them because of the related effects of their disorder: substance abuse, reduced employment options and broken relationships with friends and family.

It’s a vicious pattern that the Nova Scotia government is hoping to break by offering even the youngest students specific education in mental health.

Mamoona Brace, who teaches a combined Grade 4 and 5 class in Dartmouth, said she has been incorporating the new curriculum regularly into her classroom. The messages at this level include students being told about the signs of mental disorders, and how to distinguish possible symptoms from normal ups and downs.

The teacher noted that everyday life can provoke a roller-coaster of emotion for children, and they need to recognize when they should be concerned.

“Drama can ensue, but it shouldn’t take over your life,” Ms. Brace explained. “I’m trying to let them understand when sadness is just sadness and when it becomes a little more and becomes a problem, what the warning signs are.”

The ambitious curriculum supplements took years to develop and are being taught for the first time this fall in the province’s classrooms. The material will be heard by all students up to Grade 9, and it is said to be the first time in Canada that this sort of education has been rolled out to such a broad audience.

The new program was praised by Carol Tooton, executive director of the Nova Scotia division of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

“We need to get the information out there,” she said. “What we don’t know, we’re afraid of.”

Reducing the perceived shame of mental illness is a thread running through the new materials.

Bianca Horner, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Dalhousie University who spent years developing the curriculum, said that during pilot testing researchers found a shift in the frankness of students as they aged.

Children up to Grade 3 were not shy about discussing mental health issues, but older students were more withdrawn. Those in Grades 4 to 7 were still receptive to hearing the material but less willing to talk about their feelings, they found.

“We can’t say for sure it is stigma that makes that shift, but we think this could very well be one of the factors,” Dr. Horner said.

She believes that one way to address the problem is to start the discussion about mental health while children are still young.

“If we teach our children to talk about mental health and be exposed to mental health concepts at a young age, my impression is that mental health decisions will be seen as important as physical health decisions,” Dr. Horner said.

“These children some day will become parents and will be able to talk to their own children. Some will become policy makers and be able to effect real change.”

Dr. Horner would like to see programs like this implemented across the country. And she said she has already been asked by the Nova Scotia Department of Education to expand the materials to cover older students.

“The idea is that by learning to openly discuss emotions and concerns, students will begin to see mental health as an important and natural aspect of their overall health,” Education Minister Marilyn More said as she formally announced the primary-to-Grade-9 materials.

That would help provoke the sort of broader social change that many say is desperately needed. Mental illness is still widely misunderstood, and people often dismiss its effects as weakness or overreact in fear. And research shows that many people hide or deny their symptoms, waiting far too long before seeking help.

Stanley Kutcher, the chair in adolescent mental health at Dalhousie University, said that the length of time it takes patients to seek treatment for mental disorders varies widely. It depends in part on the environment surrounding the person and it can take years.

“It comes on gradually, and as it comes on gradually it creates a toll on the individual,” Dr. Kutcher said. “The process of getting sick creates a lot of negative outcomes. The longer you wait, the more damage there is done.”

CTVglobemedia Publishing, Inc

© CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.. Displayed by permission. All rights reserved.

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