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Empowering Students: Strategies Educators Can Use to Enhance Mental Health

  • 8 Min Read

In many school districts, the need for mental health education is rising rapidly, yet services and support networks aren’t keeping pace with demand. But better mental health support is something that every school, teacher and parent can learn to provide.

Linda Poulin

Linda Poulin, who serves as the director of educational programs at The Robb Nash Project, provides valuable insights into the organization’s efforts to promote mental health education among students in secure and supportive settings. 

In high school, Poulin had set her sights on becoming an editor and book publisher, but her university education pushed her life in an unexpected direction. After graduating with a master’s degree in curriculum and school leadership and enjoying a successful career as a high school teacher, she found her true calling: helping young adults to learn, develop and grow. 

Today, Poulin heads educational programs at The Robb Nash Project—a first-of-its-kind initiative that seeks to help young adults explore difficult topics related to mental health. Through a blend of immersive rock concerts, video stories and online learning, The Robb Nash Project encourages students to self-identify if they need help and instills hope for brighter days ahead. 

Poulin is a true D2L Champion. Last month, we caught up with her to learn more about how she is using D2L Brightspace to help students, young adults and their caregivers improve mental health outcomes.  

Below, you’ll hear her firsthand account of the impact she and the project are making.

Tackling a Growing Challenge

Adolescence can be a difficult time in our lives. It’s when we’re forming our identities, experiencing new feelings and emotions, and starting to become independent actors in the world around us. Often, young adults experience mental health challenges during this process, whether they’re dealing with low mood, feelings of depression, or addiction or social anxiety. 

For many young people, the isolation, fear and stress of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns only exacerbated these issues. Educators and parents witnessed this firsthand. Sadly, the number of youth mental health related hospital visits has escalated across Canada.  

In many school districts, the need for mental health education is rising rapidly, yet services and support networks aren’t keeping pace with demand.  But better mental health support is something that every school, teacher and parent can learn to provide. 

A lot can be achieved just by helping students learn about their own mental health, giving them a safe space to discuss any issues and making it easier to access existing services. That’s exactly what we aim to do with “A Living Curriculum” at The Robb Nash Project. We sit as a bridge between the hurting young people and the help available.

Taking the Stage to the Classroom

I first learned about Robb Nash back in my teaching days when I saw his interview on cable news where he talked about his own mental health battles and the work he was doing in schools. Shortly afterward, he came to our school and performed a concert—met with wild applause from our students—and held a post-gig workshop on mental health.

Our students loved the experience, not just because it was a break from math class, but also because it helped them discuss their feelings in a truly supportive environment. When our students saw Nash open up about his mental health challenges, they started reflecting on their own lives and felt empowered to help themselves and support their peers.

After seeing him perform at our school, I got in touch with his organization and helped them plan more visits to schools in our area. The Robb Nash team went further than I would have ever expected: They offered me a job and asked whether I could help them design and deliver an online curriculum to support their performances and workshops.

From Soundcheck to Online Learning

The Robb Nash Project had always planned to develop an online curriculum to complement its in-school concerts. When the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in lockdowns, music venues and schools were closed, and the kind of outreach they’d been doing was simply no longer possible. As a result, developing the online curriculum became a top priority. 

Fortunately, once I was onboard I realized we already had a lot of resources at our fingertips that we could adapt into an online course. For instance, just before the pandemic hit, Nash had planned to record a documentary about his life and music. We wanted to leverage this material and create a cohesive online course that would tell his story in a way that would resonate with young adults and, crucially, give students the option to give feedback based on their own experiences.  

Starting from zero was a huge undertaking. Our first order of business was to find a powerful learning management system (LMS) that could help us take our live set and transform it into a turnkey curriculum for the online classroom. After evaluating a range of LMS systems, we selected D2L Brightspace. We were impressed with the powerful functionality and flexibility of the solution, but it was D2L’s commitment to our cause that really won us over. They were genuinely interested in helping us make a positive impact on students’ lives and well-being.  

Our team took a multifaceted approach to mental health education at The Robb Nash Project. In addition to leveraging Nash’s music and documentary videos as thought-provoking discussion pieces, we set out to create an online journal that would allow students to share their personal experiences with mental health issues. Building a secure and user-friendly platform that would foster candid conversations was no easy feat, but we were committed to upholding the highest standards of privacy and confidentiality to ensure students felt safe and supported. 

With support from D2L’s Learning Services, we created our online journal. They helped us build an authentic look and feel, right down to making the journal pages look like real paper. They even added sound effects that imitated the noises made by the turning of pages. 

With D2L, we were able to build an intuitive interface for educators so they could easily review student responses and then follow up to ensure that everyone gets the mental health support they need.

Transforming Experience Into Insight

Developing an online course on mental health for young adults was an exciting experience and one that I hope many educators will get to share in the coming years. And for those who do plan to do so, I have three tips for building a successful course.

Be sincere. Students can smell insincerity from miles away. If they’re not convinced that you really want to help them, they’ll struggle to engage. Young people use social media and other online tools on a regular basis, so they’re very responsive to the look and feel of any online platforms you provide for them. If your online course is hard to navigate, looks boring or lacks interactive elements, then students might start to question whether the person who built it really wanted to listen to their experiences.

Be honest. If you’re not able to help a student with a mental health problem—and in some cases students need professional support—then tell them that. If you can’t help as their teacher, tell them, “I don’t have the tools that I need to be able to help you in this situation, but I’ll walk with you, and we’ll go find someone who can.” And then you help them navigate the services and support networks they require.

Ditch the gradebook. Nobody on this planet has straight As in mental health. Successful mental health curriculums prioritize sharing, empathy, compassion and self-reflection. Designing your course around these competencies—not tests and exams—will lead to the highest engagement and the best outcomes.

Having a Lasting Positive Impact

One of the things I love about my job is that I get to hear how our performances and online courses help students learn more about themselves and help educators become mental health champions at their schools.

One story is etched into my memory. We ran our curriculum in a small community school in Saskatchewan and we had positive feedback from both the students and the teachers. In fact, many educators and counselors remarked that the experience had encouraged their students to raise their hands and get the help they need before there was a downward spiral into something serious.

Delighted with the feedback, I set the school a challenge. I asked, “How can you give back to others in your community? Are there needs that you see around that you might be able to address?”

It was around Christmas time and the school was due to close for the holidays in two weeks. Despite this, the students and teachers sprang into action.

Some students wanted to show their gratitude for the small businesses in their area, so they bought business owners small gifts for Christmas. Others were concerned that elderly people might feel lonely over the festive period, so they visited them and sang carols. When they shared this with me, I realized that we had gone full circle—the students experienced the powerful feeling of giving and they were actively becoming more compassionate young people and applying that in their community.

Learn More About Our D2L Champions Program

The D2L Champions program is designed to recognize you as the innovative learning leader that you are. We want to celebrate your achievements, broaden your impact and empower you to shape the future of learning technology. Champions who participate in advocacy activities can earn passes to D2L-sponsored events, creative and advisory services, and more.

Written by:

Linda Poulin

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Table of Contents

  1. Tackling a Growing Challenge
  2. Taking the Stage to the Classroom
  3. From Soundcheck to Online Learning
  4. Transforming Experience Into Insight
  5. Having a Lasting Positive Impact
  6. Learn More About Our D2L Champions Program