School Mental Health Literacy Training to Address Rise in COVID-19 Related Mental Health Issues

21 Jul 2020
young-man-mental-health-jamaica

The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) has collaborated with the Ministry of Health and Wellness and the Ministry of Education Youth and Information and Teenmentalhealth.org to train a cohort of trainers in mental health literacy (MHL) to address the expected increase in metal health needs of secondary aged school children due to the current COVID-19 pandemic across Jamaica.

An expected increase in mental health needs of secondary aged school children has been forecast across the island due to added stressors caused by COVID-19; including the closure of schools, increased financial stress at home and restrictions to freedoms of movement and physical contact.

In response, PAHO facilitated the training using the evidence-based mental health literacy approach to train 50 trainers from multiple disciplines within the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health and Wellness including senior education officers, health and family life educators, guidance counsellors, educational social workers and curriculum development specialists.

The MHL approach was designed to enhance the understanding about mental health and mental disorders and to reduce stigma against mental illness, while helping to build the capacity to obtain and maintain good mental health; including linking adolescents with appropriate referral services [1].

Half of all mental health conditions start by 14 years of age but most cases go undetected and untreated [2]. Emerging research underscores the immense influence of COVID-19 on youth mental health, including higher risks for developing mental health problems or mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance use [3-5].

Since the onset of COVID 19 and the premature closure of schools, many school aged students have experienced significant changes in their lives. The disruption of their sleep and other schedules, the possibility of financial challenges at home, separation from peers and lack of, or intermittent access to, internet services to ensure consistent participation in those online classes provided by some schools, among other challenges could cause significant distress to students.

Training was hosted on PAHO’s Virtual Campus of Public Health and was delivered twice weekly between  June 9 to July 3 by faculty affiliated with Teenmentalhealth.org. The participants were placed in groups according to the designated educational regions and participants completed group assignments, quizzes and group work, along with a review of the curriculum that is to be incorporated into local curricula.

This cadre of master trainers are expected to train “go-to educators” such as health and family life educators, school nurses, guidance counsellors, coaches, deans of discipline and form teachers in schools across Jamaica. The training of the “go-to educators” is planned to take place early in the new academic school year at the end of 2020. This will be preceded by a baseline assessment of the MHL of students as a part of an evaluation of the implementation of the MHL in schools.

The MHL program has been successfully implemented in school districts across Canada and in several LMICs and research has demonstrated that MHL builds the foundation for mental health promotion, prevention and care [6 -9].  Elements of the SMHL curriculum will be infused into the national Mental Health and High School Curriculum with adaptations for the local context, with the aim to reduce stigma around mental illnesses among adolescents while ensuring early detection and improved access to appropriate care for those in need.  


[1] Kutcher S, Wei Y, Coniglio C. (2016). Mental health literacy: past, present, and future. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 61(3),154-158. DOI: 10.1177/0706743715616609.  

[2] WHO 2019. WHO Adolescent Mental Health Fact Sheet accessed from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/adolescent-mental-health accessed 07/14/20

[3] Lee J. (2020). Mental health effects of school closures during COVID-19. Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, 4(6), 421. doi: 10.1016/S2352-4642(20)30109-7.

[4] Cluver L, Lachman J, Sherr L, et al. (2020). Parenting in a time of COVID-19. Lancet,  395(10231), e64. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30736-4.

[5] Liang L, Ren H, Cao R, Hu Y, Qin Z, Li C, and Mei S. The effect of COVID-19 on youth mental health. Psychiatry Quarterly, 21, 1-12. doi: 10.1007/s11126-020-09744-3

[6] Kutcher S, Wei Y, & Morgan C. (2015). Mental health literacy in post-secondary students. Health Education Journal. DOI: 10.1177/0017896915610144.

[7] McLuckie A, Kutcher S, Wei Y, & Weaver C. (2014). Sustained improvements in students’ mental health literacy with use of a mental health curriculum in Canadian schools. BMC Psychiatry, 14(1), 379.

[8] Milin R, Kutcher S, Lewis S, et al. (2016). Impact of a mental health curriculum on knowledge and stigma among high school students: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 55(5), 383-391.

[9] Ravindran A, Herrera A, da Silva T et al. (2018). Evaluating the benefits of a youth mental health curriculum for students in Nicaragua: a parallel-group, controlled pilot investigation. Global Mental Health, 5. DOI: 10.1017/gmh.2017.27.