Understanding Mental Health


Promoting Mental Health

Mental health is more than the absence of mental illness. The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her society.” The Canadian Mental Health Association estimates that one in five people will experience a mental health problem over the course of their lifetime (www.cmha.ca). Among youth, data suggest that 70% of those in need of treatment do not receive appropriate mental health services (National Association of School Psychologists, 2003). As indicated in a Canadian survey recently referenced in the Montreal Gazette (October 5, 2010), this is in part due to the fact that mental health resources for youth are scarce to non-existent.

Although research in the field of youth mental health is still in its infancy, it is known that the onset of some disorders can be traced to childhood and adolescence. Early identification and effective intervention can serve to enhance quality of life issues for those affected by mental illness. A critical component underlying effective intervention is psycho-educational in nature, with strategies designed to minimize stigma and educate all involved about the realities of living with mental illness.

Increasing protective factors to mitigate risk factors can go a long way in reducing the long-term impact of such challenges.


Promoting Positive Mental Health in Schools

Recent research in health and educational domains asserts the importance of moving beyond a problem-focused approach to embrace a more positive view of mental health. This shift involves the recognition that children’s and youth’s state of psychological well-being is not only influenced by the absence of problems, but also by the existence of factors that contribute to positive growth and development. From this perspective, positive mental health in schools underscores an approach that mental health is more than merely an absence of mental illness. Rather, its aim is to encourage a healthy mindset within our students and staff by providing strategies to increase overall psychological, emotional and physical health and well-being.

Positive mental health has been described as “the capacity of each and all of us to feel, think, and act in ways that enhance our ability to enjoy life and deal with the challenges we face. It is a positive sense of emotional and spiritual well-being that respects the importance of culture, equity, social justice, interconnections and personal dignity” (The Public Health Agency of Canada, 2006).

The emergence of a positive mental health perspective has shifted the focus of educators and health professionals from a preoccupation of repairing weaknesses to the enhancement of positive qualities. In schools, positive mental health initiatives/programs focus on increasing students’ understanding of mental illness and preventative strategies though the adoption of a healthy lifestyle. Enhancing the quality of life of children and youth through prevention approaches has been shown to be very effective at reducing the risk of developing mental health-related concerns.

Positive mental health approaches in education and health share common principles or values related to fostering the psychological well-being of children and youth. These include:

  • Children and youth have inner strengths and gifts that support their capacity to initiate, direct and sustain positive life directions

  • Engagement and empowerment are critical considerations for facilitating positive development or change

  • Social contexts and networks provide important resources and influences that have the capacity to contribute to and enhance their psychological well-being

  • Children’s and youths’ relationships with adults and peers that contribute to psychological well-being are characterized by interactions that convey genuineness, empathy, unconditional caring and affirmation

Positive mental health approaches and practices contribute to improve physical and emotional developmental outcomes in children and youth. The range of educational, physical health and psychosocial benefits to students related to the implementation of positive mental health perspectives and practices within schools include the following:

  • Identification and effective management of emotions

  • Enhancement of positive coping and problem-solving skills

  • Creation of meaningful and positive learning environments

  • Increased participation in structured community recreational and leisure activities

  • Increased understanding and de-stigmatization of mental health conditions

  • Enhanced opportunities for children and youth to demonstrate age-appropriate autonomy and choice

  • Increased involvement in structured and unstructured physical activities

  • Reduction in high-risk behaviours (e.g. alcohol and substance use)

  • Enhanced academic achievement and school attendance

  • Increased academic confidence and engagement

  • Improved mindset and relaxation strategies

Schools play a key role in delivering services related to positive mental health. As children move into their early and later teen years, schools may play an even more significant role in this area in influencing youth. A comprehensive school mental health framework involves a whole school approach that can include strategies in the following areas:

  • Social and physical environment

  • Teaching and learning

  • Healthy school policies and promotion of prevention initiatives/programs

  • Partnerships with family and community

Some general guidelines that schools can adopt which have been shown to increase positive mental health among students include:

  • Enhance learning outcomes

  • Uphold social justice and equity concepts

  • Provide a safe and supportive environment

  • Involve student participation and empowerment

  • Link health and education issues and systems

  • Address the health and well-being of all school staff

  • Collaborate with parents and local community

  • Integrate health into the school’s ongoing activities, curriculum and assessment standards

  • Set realistic goals built on accurate data and sound scientific evidence

  • Seek continuous improvement through ongoing monitoring and evaluation


For more information on how to implement positive mental health practices in schools, click on the following links:


For more specific prevention initiatives/programs and strategies in the area of mental health promotion, click on the following links:


To learn more about mental health, click on the following links:



Promoting mental health to strengthen school communities