In the News: Trustees advocate for more mental health services in Alberta schools

12_mental_2An injection of cash last spring for school mental health therapists was helpful, but not enough to help the number of students arriving in Alberta schools daily with mental health problems, an Edmonton school trustee said Monday.

“We are nowhere close to being able to meet these needs in our education and health systems,” Edmonton public school trustee Shelagh Dunn said of the estimated 20 per cent of children and youth living with mental health problems.

On Monday, school trustees from across Alberta agreed to lobby government for better collaboration between health, education and infrastructure ministries to improve mental health services in schools. Trustees from Edmonton’s public school board and Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools brought the motion to an Alberta School Boards’ Association meeting for discussion.

In May, the government increased by about 50 per cent the money available for a grant program Alberta schools use to pay for mental health therapists working in schools.

The $5-million increase is expected to expand school-based mental health services to about 200 more schools and 100,000 more students.

That money hasn’t flowed to schools quite yet — grant applications just closed and are being reviewed, the health minister’s past press secretary, Laura Ehrkamp, said in an email earlier this month.

Mental health workers in schools

Dunn, who is a clinical psychologist treating adult patients, said all schools should have mental health workers stationed in them, with regular office hours where students can drop in when needed.

Although she didn’t provide a number, Dunn said school boards are diverting money that should be spent on children’s education to hire health-care workers instead.

Some of the services currently offered in schools come through a collaborative model with health, education and social services ministries. In a pitch to Alberta trustees, Edmonton and Greater St. Albert board members say those workers have heavy caseloads, and are dashing between schools and often are not available when needed.

Families have also said wait times are long to see professionals in the $66-million regional collaborative services delivery program.

Some schools have turned to charitable organizations to provide counselling in schools, which leads to a patchwork of services and systems that are complicated for students and their families to navigate, Dunn said.

The government is taking its investment cues from the 2016 Valuing Mental Health report, which came from a review of the system.

Government spokeswoman Kate Toogood said in a Monday email the government recognizes the importance of prevention and early intervention for mental health problems.

“We recognize that fully addressing the Valuing Mental Health report will take time and will involve working closely with our partners, including other ministries, (Alberta Health Services), and community organizations,” she said.

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