This week a 20-something fellow named Aaron Leung announced he was seeking a nomination to run for the Vancouver School Board. If elected, he said he would seek to “improve student access to mental health services.” His bid for school board dropped into my email box the same day 250 students and 40 educators from 18 Vancouver schools attended a “summit” at Sir Charles Tupper secondary school under the banner “Balancing our Minds.” (Last year, more than 2,000 high school aged kids attended five such meetings across the province.)
A week earlier, at the annual meeting in Richmond of the B.C. School Trustees Association, Vancouver NPA school trustee Lisa Dominato moved a motion calling on the province to develop a “mental health strategy for B.C. schools.” The motion passed unanimously. It had also passed unanimously when it was initially raised at the school board.
Two things are clear. First: something is going on. Second: this is not your parents’ school system. I mean, who ever talked about this stuff when you were a kid?
But look at these Canadian statistics. In the period from 2008 to 2016, children and youth visits to the emergency ward because of mental disorders increased by 56 per cent. The number of kids who are hospitalized was up by 47 per cent. And by the way, the number of kids generally admitted to hospital over that period for other conditions had declined by 18 per cent.
Dominato said by one estimate, at any one time in British Columbia there are approximately 84,000 kids between ages four and 17 who suffer with mental health issues.
If your child or grandchild is popping a pill to deal with this disability, they are not alone. One in 12 Canadian youth are given mood/anxiety or antipsychotic medication. That would be seven per cent of the kids in B.C. who popped a pill to treat a mood or anxiety disorder and close to two per cent were taking at least one antipsychotic medication.
The demand for the province to step up is not new. As Dominato pointed out, “Currently there is no education sector strategy in place and stakeholders have repeated called for provincial leadership in this area.” This is the fifth year in a row this “summit” has taken place in communities across the province. The principle sponsor is B.C. Children’s Hospital.
Dominato would have us look to Ontario, which has been onto this issue most deliberately since 2007. They have a province-wide strategy and solid infrastructure when it comes to helping school kids facing these difficulties.
As for B.C.’s efforts, the past Liberal government and its ministry of education did little more than twiddle its thumbs.
Hope springs eternal however. Assuming the minority NDP government in Victoria has a lifespan longer than a fruit fly, they seem willing to take up the challenge. Minister of Education Rob Fleming is making encouraging noises. And Judy Darcy, the minister responsible for the brand spanking new Ministry of Mental Health and Addiction, seems on board. Her comments on the day of the student mental health summit had her thanking “the students behind the summit from the bottom of my heart for breaking down the walls of silence to talk about mental health.” To which she added: “I applaud these students for helping to create a space so their peers have access to support when they need it.”
If Darcy and Fleming are looking for a solution, Dominato says it is there.
In 2013, a group calling itself the “B.C. School Based Mental Health Coalition” referred to a concept called “school connectedness.” It is the key, they would argue, to dealing with mental health issues too many children experience. It is “about creating a school community where everyone feels safe, seen, heard, supported, significant and cared for.”
Healthy Schools B.C. is a not-for-profit that makes this point: “The presence of caring relationships in school — the heart of school connectedness — is increasingly recognized as a vital component of successful schools. The research is strong and consistent; students who feel connected to school do better academically and are heathier.”
More school districts around the province are coming to this conclusion. What is needed though is the provincial government to get on board and provide the necessary funding and direction.