Addressing a Gender Gap in School-Based Mental Health Promotion: Planning an implementation study with multiple stakeholders

CIHR Planning Grant


Claudia Mitchell (PI)
Jonathan Salsberg (Co-investigator)


Girls’ Action Foundation
Saman Asman
Tatiana Fraser

English School Board of Montreal
Daphna Leibovici

Independent Consultant
Diane Gatterman


Research studies by the Canadian Council on Learning (2009) and Canadian Institute for Health Information (2009) demonstrate that up to one in five Canadian children and youth experience mental health issues that have a significant impact on their academic, social, and family life (Kutcher & Short 2009; Wilder & Short 2010). The middle childhood years pose particular challenges for boys and girls as they transition into their adolescence. Children at this age are faced with increasing demands and concerns related to peer and family relationships as well as to such issues as sexuality, body image, eating disorders, depression and substance use and abuse (Watt, Dickey & Grakist, p. 24). While boys and girls are equally likely to exhibit adjustment difficulties as infants and toddlers (Freidrich et al. 2010), gender in relation to health behaviours and the development of psychopathology becomes increasingly significant throughout childhood and into adolescence (Freidrich et al. 2010). Adjustment problems in boys tend to manifest as externalizing behaviours such as conduct disorder, physical aggression and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), while more girls than boys experience internalizing behaviours such as body image dissatisfaction, guilt, self-blame, self-disappointment, feelings of failure, sleep problems, overall fatigue, and health worries (Freidrich et al. 2010; Phares, Steinberg & Thompson 2004). However, Freidrich et al (2010). find “very few empirically validated gender-informed or gender-specific programs currently available for implementation in schools” and thus assert that “an increase in research on gender-specific universal, secondary and tertiary school-based programming is clearly needed,” beginning with gender analyses of current programs that assess whether and how current mental health programs are meeting the needs of girls and boys equally (p. 132). Canadian researchers Smith, Cousins and Stewart (2005) similarly call for further research examining the role of gender in relation to how students respond to relational violence.

This project will convene practitioners, school staff, parents, students, and researchers to explore why, despite the availability of many school-based mental health promotion programs and curriculum tools, teachers and schools are often at a loss as to how to address these mental-health related challenges. It will also explore the ways in which gender is a feature of this work. The project will draw on the perspectives of each of these stakeholders to identify program implementation gaps. The study of existing programs and perspectives will help describe how extensive is this gap, and the needs assessment will identify some promising practices that could be tested in the implementation study to be developed as a result of this Planning Grant. Thus, the Planning Grant will allow for in-depth assessment with stakeholders of the following questions, which will form the basis for a larger research project: (1) How can the barriers to implementation of effective school-based mental health  (SBMH) programs be reduced and school uptake increased? (2) How can the gap in gender-specific SBMH promotion programs best be addressed?