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On mental health through a gender lens

| Gender equity, Mental health, Violence

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) describes violence against women and children as a major mental health issue which affects all of society. It further adds that “the societal impact encompasses the need and care for victims at any time throughout their lives”.

While not all mental health challenges can be linked to violence, people who have witnessed violence or have been targeted by violence are more apt to suffer from mental health challenges later. The Canadian Women’s Foundation indicates that while both men and women experience violence, statistics show that women do experience higher rates. The Foundation also states that half of all women in Canada have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16. These are our girls and young women.

Every day, teachers welcome students from all walks of life, including many who have been psychologically scarred by domestic or other forms of violence as well as others who are new to Canada after fleeing their war-torn countries, into their classrooms.

The Foundation also states that half of all women in Canada have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16. These are our girls and young women.

With Statistics Canada estimating a student population of 5,032,183 in our K-12 classes, imagine the millions of daily interactions between students, and between students and teachers that are peaceful and … underreported in the media! While Canadian teachers will tell you our publicly funded public schools are relatively safe, they also believe we should pay attention to ensuring our schools are among the safest and most caring in the world.

One form of insidious violence that impacts children and youth is the all too often negative media portrayal of women and girls as sexual objects that incites violence, rape, and degradation. This depiction not only harms the way girls and young women see themselves but can also influence boys and young men in their relationships with women and girls. The cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada are appalling examples of racialized and sexualized violence that are now being addressed through a national inquiry.

A growing concern in schools is student violence against teachers. This concern was expressed at the recent Canadian Forum on Public Education held by CTF last July. Member organizations say an increasing number of their teacher members fear they will be the next victims of threats, intimidation, and violence at the hands of students.

A growing concern in schools is student violence against teachers.

Often times, students perpetrating these acts are victims of abuse themselves, trapped in the vicious cycle of violence. Clearly, these young people along with others require timely professional mental health support — support that is often elusive in schools, according to a 2011 CTF teacher survey (PDF, 1.3 MB).

In addition to not having professional support or training themselves in this field, teachers are working against a backdrop of austerity measures in education that has diminished their teaching resources, cut school budgets and staff positions, and increased their class sizes. The end result: less time for educators to devote to their students. This concern was raised by 95% of 8,000 teachers surveyed by CTF in 2014 who said they had felt stressed for not finding the time to meet the educational needs of their students.

All of these factors mentioned earlier take a toll on the mental well-being of teachers, and that can impact learning. A 2016 University of British Columbia study shows a possible link between teacher burnout and student stress levels. The question begs, which comes first: the chicken or the egg?

Domestic violence

Another issue that has devastating effects on the mental health of women and children is domestic violence (DV).

The 2014 National Survey on Domestic Violence at Work conducted by the University of Western Ontario in cooperation with the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) showed one in three workers having experienced domestic violence, and for many the violence follows them to work.

Since the majority of teachers in Canada are women*, it stands to reason they too have been affected by domestic violence at some point in their lives. This is why CTF is supporting the CLC’s development of the DV@Work initiative in terms of financial and human support.

This victory has been praised widely by the labour movement and cited as an example to follow in collective bargaining.

On other fronts, the adoption of policy is also critical in moving forward. One of the resolutions adopted at the CTF Annual General Meeting in July 2016 was inspired by a CTF Member organization, the Yukon Teachers’ Association, which is the first union in Canada to negotiate a special leave for members who have been victims of domestic violence. (page 22) [PDF, 715 KB].

This victory has been praised widely by the labour movement and cited as an example to follow in collective bargaining. But our work is far from being over. What follows is a general overview of the topics of the resolutions (through a gender lens) that were adopted at the 2016 AGM:

  • Support for the national inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (follow-up to the 2014 CTF petition and news release);
  • Call for a National Children and Youth Commissioner;
  • Mental health strategies, services, treatments for children, youth and women based on scientific research, sensitive to race, religion, age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, etc.;
  • Mental health treatments for women based on social determinants such as poverty, housing, stigma and past experiences of violence and not just on the biomedical model (focused on biological and genetic factors of mental health);
  • Better workplace violence prevention and protection legislation for teachers;
  • A national action plan to end violence against women;
  • Protection of teachers against all forms of workplace violence including by students; and
  • Mental health services, treatments and supports for all Canadians who require them, under provincial and territorial health insurance.

In closing, the CTF will continue its work in promoting safe and caring schools here in Canada and abroad. Just recently, the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative cited CTF’s “Teachers’ Action for Girls” initiative in cooperation with the Uganda National Teachers’ Union (UNATU) as an example of the critical role of teachers and their organizations as leaders in education change, including girls’ education to ending school-related gender-based violence. We were honoured by this recognition and also congratulate UNATU for their leadership in this area.

While we can’t change everything in one day, we can take steps today that can help to end the cycle of violence in society in the future. Every step counts.

*According to Statistics Canada, 84% of all elementary school and kindergarten teachers and 59% of all secondary school teachers in Canada are women.

Education International responds to the Global Education Monitoring Report on accountability