What secondary students seek when it comes to school mental health?

HearNowOn key findings from secondary students mental health research

New research shines a light on what secondary students seek when it comes to school mental health. It showed that students have three main concerns when it comes to school mental health: good mental health education; equitable mental health; and leadership of mental health.

School Mental Health Ontario are a provincial implementation support team in Canada. Since 2011 they have been helping school districts enhance student mental health through the use of evidence-based strategies and services.

The main findings are summarised below:

Good mental health education

Students want to learn about mental health earlier in their education and seek varied, frequent and good quality education on the topic. They also want their parents to learn about mental health. 

Secondary students mental health topics graph1

Interestingly, whereas in 2019 students reported wanting to learn about mental health from their teachers, in 2021, they were primarily interested in learning from a school mental health professional (65% endorsed this option) or another expert in this area like a community mental health professional (48% endorsed this option). It is important to note that Ontario has developed a range of professional roles within schools with a focus on mental health, much like our school mental health specialists <link to pages>. This could indicate that as more school mental health professionals enter the school, expectations from students shift.

Equitable mental health

Across all forums, students reported a connection between poor mental health and experiences of discrimination and inequity in schools. Participants noted that better addressing school-based instances of discrimination and marginalization is vital to improving the mental health of Ontario students.

The intersection of equity and mental health was the second-highest school mental health priority endorsed. Students recommended that schools should put a deeper focus on equity for both mental health learning and promotion and prevention programmes. 

Students called for more support and services for students who identify as Black, LGBTQ, immigrants and newcomers with refugee backgrounds. This theme follows from similar recommendations from students to honour diversity and to prioritise inclusion and belonging in school mental health. Students reported that mental health stigma, financial barriers, and experiences of oppression (e.g., racism, homophobia, and transphobia) impact Ontario students’ access to mental health learning, support, and participation. 

They shared their desire for more opportunities that connect with their identities, for schools to encourage affinity groups (e.g., Gay-Straight Alliances), and to reflect diverse students in their school and learning. To address barriers and create more support and resources, students suggested that it is essential to recognize that there is no “one size fits all” approach to mental health support. Identity-affirming, student-centred programming is needed and appreciated. 

In the UK the Centre for Mental Health are focused on mental health equity and have published previous research into this area, which is worth exploring. 

Leadership of mental health

It is interesting to note that School Mental Health Ontario discusses the more empowering and aspirational ‘student leadership of mental health’, rather than the more passive and limiting ‘pupil voice’, which is most prevalent in the UK.  

Ontario finds that student engagement in mental health programming at school was the third highest priority. However, most survey respondents were not currently involved in mental health leadership initiatives at their school.

Survey respondents noted that students were best positioned for mental health engagement and leadership related to: 

  1. Raising awareness about mental health and mental illness 
  2. Helping with stress management at school 
  3. Raising awareness about equity, discrimination, and mental health 
  4. Promoting wellness and self-care 
  5. Reducing stigma related to mental health Students also noted their important role with respect to noticing when someone is struggling and assisting them in getting help


Forum participants also discussed how taking on leadership opportunities can be more challenging for students who are shy or who experience social anxiety. Many expressed a desire for resources for shy leaders to find a way to be involved that works for them. As well, students want school systems to re-think how leadership is defined and assumed, recognizing the value of many different kinds of involvement and leadership styles.

Supporting peers and accessing support

Students indicated that early identification and peer helping was a top priority throughout the survey. They also emphasized the need to respect boundaries and privacy, and ways to seek adult support when needed. Peers in school are often the first person a student turns to when struggling with a mental health problem. Students want to be more equipped for these conversations, so they can help their friends without taking on the burden of care for another young person’s distress. They are keen to know the difference between “normal” adolescent distress, mental health problems, and mental illness and are explicitly seeking information about warning signs for suicide. 

Many students were concerned about privacy and respecting boundaries when supporting their peers. These findings suggest that demonstrating respect for boundaries and privacy while being explicit about legal and ethical limits to confidentiality will strengthen student trust in mental health services. 

Find out more about our mental health qualifications to support the mental health and well-being of the whole school community:

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#HearNowON: Ontario Student Perspectives on School Mental Health 2021: https://smho-smso.ca/blog/online-resources/hearnowon-2021-student-voices-on-mental-health-final-report, accessed 17th November 2022.