Protecting Young Brains

Marty McSorley's helmet (thanks to Kyle Fry)
Marty McSorley’s helmet (thanks to Kyle Fry)

This past year, I was fortunate to work with Robert Dunn and Steven Katz on a research project which used case management techniques to deeply study the reasons why students were not attending school, and therefore not succeeding in graduating.  The experience reinforced the observation that complex issues require complex solutions, and blanket strategies to address problems in schools are seldom the best practice.  I learned a great deal from our intense study, and the underlying impact of student mental health on learning was front and centre.

empty bed

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In June, the results of the 2011 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey indicated that a much larger percentage of Ontario students have experienced serious head trauma than previously thought, as many head injuries are not reported to adults.  The impact of head trauma on long term success in school and in life is an area that still requires further research.  Essentially, there are three groups of traumas.  About half of the head traumas experienced by Ontario students come from sports injuries.  Some traumas are the result of motor vehicle accidents and accidents in daily life, but a surprising number of self-reported head injuries appear to be directly related to alcohol and drug use, and to achieving poor grades in school (St. Michael’s Hospital, 2013).  The most recent data suggests that one in five Ontario students (grades 7 to 12) have experienced a traumatic brain injury.

Adolescent brains have yet to mature.  There is concern that traumatic injury during brain development can have a lasting impact on cognitive functioning.  As well, after one concussion, research shows that it takes less force to have a second concussion, and the impact can be much more pronounced.  There is evidence that multiple head traumas can lead to substance abuse, mental health and physical health harms.

helmet crash test

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As educators, we need to be aware of all aspects of brain injuries.  Most importantly, we need to understand how to prevent concussions.  OPHEA guidelines for preventing and responding to head injuries are available to teachers and coaches. Prevention is the only cure for brain injury., a new amalgamation of a number of organizations committed to preventing injury, is another excellent source of information on preventing and treating brain injury.

But the recent information that so many of our “at-risk” students may also be dealing with concussion symptoms requires a new level of understanding of the progression and long term effects of serious and/or multiple brain injuries.  Dr. Charles Tator, Canada’s foremost expert on brain injuries, identifies over 50 initial symptoms of concussion, and another 50 that may appear days, months, years or decades after a concussion.

Bradley and Brown #3

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Dr. Tator reports that there are tens of thousands of concussions in Canada every year.  He is clearly astounded that as a society, we still support blows to the head in sports, and that we see hockey fights as entertainment.  In his recent discussion with Paul Kennedy on the CBC Radio One program “Ideas”, he describes the patients he sees, the victims of our complacency around violence in hockey – those talented young men and women who may never be gainfully employed, or who die as a result of their injuries.

helment crash

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I am really struck by the story of Catherine Vipond’s last year.   I’m not sure if it is because I have watched her race her mountain bike for many years, or because I know how easily it could have been the story of my own son’s life, but I can’t get it out of my head.  A cyclist, racing at the world level, pushes the limits, crashes, and sustains a head injury that sidelines her not only from her sport, but from much of her life. It’s tragic, and it is too common.

While out walking this summer, please take the time to listen to this informative discussion about head injuries in podcast format.  It is also available for free from the iTunes store:  CBC Ideas: Brain Bang Theory.

Let’s work to ensure all youth have the opportunity to use their brains to their full potential.


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