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Blog: Monday, December 10th, 2018

A follow-up: Are we the source…?

By Kevin Godden, Superintendent of Schools

I learned long ago that there are no universal interventions. There are no simple cures to complex problems; complicated problems require sophisticated solutions. Solutions to complex social challenges will invariably come in three interconnected domains, each of which comes with its own set of challenges.

One poignant and current example that comes to mind is the opioid crisis which currently plagues this country. Our former police chief Bob Rich sparked some controversy when he wrote about it, but I agreed with him for the most part. It serves as an excellent example of a comprehensive response to a complex challenge.

Generally speaking, the three phases of the response are awareness/prevention, intervention/rehabilitation, and enforcement. Some have argued that the best way to deal with the issue is to simply hire more police officers to deal with the suppliers and users. Get them off the streets and into jail. Others have suggested that we need comprehensive treatment programs to deal with addiction, and still, others have suggested that we need stronger education programs for both adults and children. The fact is that they are all correct. We need all three. More importantly, we need all three in proper sequence and intensities. Years of research will tell you that if you want to deal with the drug issue, you should invest most heavily in reducing the demand. That is, your ability to effectively deal with the prevalence (existing cases) of drug use will be more effective when you can reduce its incidence (new cases). Enforcement and rehabilitation are most effective when you reduce the number of new cases you must contend with. Put another way, invest heavily upstream, so you do not have to spend more downstream. As Chief Rich used to say, we must prevent the next generation of drug dealers and users from getting started in the first place.

The principle is much the same when you apply it to the youth mental health challenges we now face. The children and youth who legitimately struggle with mental illness are best served by first educating parents and classroom teachers about what we mean by mental health, mental wellness, and mental illness. Some are calling it an epidemic, and I imagine it may feel that way to the average onlooker. The issues are real and complex, and therefore require an equally thoughtful solution along the three pathways I mention above: prevention/awareness, intervention, and rehabilitation.

Prevention and awareness, as I mentioned before, is all about clarity, education and healthy living. We need clarity about what we mean by mental health, mental wellness, and mental wellness. We need parents and classroom teachers alike to know the difference between a mental disorder and human feelings. They are very different, and we do a great disservice to kids when we conflate them.

Healthy living is not about drinking copious amounts of “Neurowater” - a fortified vitamin drink that claims to reduce stress and lower cortisol levels  - or consuming “Hot Dog Water” to ward off your anxiety. It involves exercising regularly, playing outside, getting proper sleep, not taking the mobile device to bed at night, seeking and giving help, and learning effective coping strategies. My grandmother was right about that, and I believe we have lost our way. It also means that we need to consciously improve our mental health literacy, as well as that of our children, so they do not pathologize ostensibly difficult but normal human emotions.

Then, and only then, will we be in a position to meaningfully and effectively address the mental illness of kids who legitimately need the help. Thinking about it in practical terms, as some sources have reported that youth mental illness has reached epidemic proportions, then we simply do not have enough counsellors in schools and therapists in our communities to adequately address it. We certainly will not have enough intensive care facilities with trained medical professionals to help such large numbers. 

However, if we entertain the idea that as parents and educators we can take steps to address the majority of the challenging emotional circumstances that our kids will face as a part of normal life, then we actually will have a reasonable chance of having the resources allocated to our kids who need it most. We need to teach and learn our way out of the problem upstream.

Some of you will know that this prevention/education effort is a province-wide response in partnership with Dr. Stan Kutcher and the University of British Columbia. I encourage as many of us as possible to explore the resources which have been developed at TeenMentalHealth.org.

If you are sufficiently committed to this idea, I would also encourage you to take UBC’s free online self-paced course designed to understand and recognize the difference between sadness and depression, and further provide us with some useful strategies to meaningfully help our children and youth thrive.

By Kevin Godden
Kevin Godden
Kevin Godden

By Kevin Godden, Superintendent of Schools

Kevin has been the Superintendent of Schools for the Abbotsford School District since July 2011, overseeing some 19,000 students and 2,500 employees. Kevin is committed to student success in all forms and envisions a school district that can nimbly respond to the ever changing needs and interests of its students.