Government to expand mental health services in Alberta schools

May 08, 2018 03:38 AM

Alberta-Flanked by students and staff at Jasper Place High School’s student services centre Monday, Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said a $5-million funding increase will put more mental health workers in schools, where parents, teachers, and school boards are asking for more help.

The provincial government wants to grow the number of students who can talk to a social worker, therapist or counsellor right in their school.

“I think every school in the province is going to be looking for this additional kind of support, because it’s just a huge need province wide,” Nancy Davis, Jasper Place’s head of student services, said Monday.

Alberta Health already spends $10.6 million annually to fund 37 school-based mental health programs, including the Strength, Tolerance, Attitude, Resilience (STAR) program at Jasper Place. Some of the programs serve students at multiple schools.

Hoffman estimates the expansion will add 15 more programs to serve a total of 100,000 K-12 students, up from the 65,000 children and youth who use them now.

Jasper Place High School graduate Claire Allen talks about her experience with the school’s STAR program. She turned there for support after her mother died from ALS. LARRY WONG / POSTMEDIA NETWORK

Jasper Place graduate Claire Allen, 18, relie on help from STAR staff as soon as she began high school nearly four years ago. Her mother was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) when Allen was in the ninth grade, and died the summer before Allen started Grade 10.

Then 15, Allen was grieving, anxious, and didn’t want to talk to her dad about social encounters or female body issues, she said. The STAR centre, which employs three success coaches, a part-time mental health therapist, and a part-time addictions counsellor, was a safe and comfortable place Allen went to step away from family and school.

Workers there taught her coping mechanisms and relaxation exercises, and referred her to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed her with obsessive compulsive disorder. Without the STAR centre, she wouldn’t have known where to begin to get help, she said.

“If every student had access to the STAR, I think a lot of students would be in a completely different situation,” Allen said. “You would see schools and students growing.”

Wait times for mental health services using other avenues can be months long, Davis said. Students at Jasper Place can usually see a success coach when they walk into the office, and a mental health therapist or addictions counsellor within a week. Staff can also refer students to other health professionals more quickly, Davis said.

School districts across Alberta will be invited to apply for the grant from Alberta Health Services later this year. There’s no timeline yet for how quickly new professionals will be hired and stationed in schools.

The Canadian Mental Health Association says 10 to 20 per cent of children and youth are diagnosed with mental illness.

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