Alberta schools begin launching mental health pilot projects

Northland School Division students learn traditional games as part of the second Annual Healthy Active School Symposium in 2019. (Northland School Division - image credit)
Northland School Division students learn traditional games as part of the second Annual Healthy Active School Symposium in 2019. (Northland School Division - image credit)

Alberta students will gain greater access to mental health supports as dozens of pilot projects get off the ground starting this month.

The provincial government has approved 60 projects as part of a $40 million dollar two-year initiative with a second call for proposals closing on Jan 31.

The pilot projects are a collaboration between mental health service providers and school authorities using their data to tailor services toward the unique needs of local student populations.

"As each school authority and community is unique, they are best able to understand the needs of the students and families they serve," Emily Peckham, press secretary to Alberta's education minister, wrote in an email to CBC News.

"The pilot projects will allow us to use this initial funding to determine what practices, supports and services are most effective before committing to future government policy and funding decisions in the area of student mental health, thereby benefiting all school authorities in the province," Peckham said.

"Given the important relationship between positive mental health and academic success, schools have an important role in nurturing the whole student."

Trauma-informed schools

Northland School Division (NSD) oversees 19 schools situated throughout a massive stretch of land operated out of Peace River, Alta. almost 500 kilometres north of Edmonton.

The division was awarded a $500,000 grant to recruit two mental health therapists as part of an initiative that aims to ensure schools become more trauma-informed.

Being trauma-informed will allow staff to better respond to the intergenerational trauma impacting their students, but also the ramifications of more recent events like flooding, fires and the pandemic. Nearly all 2000 students in the division are Indigenous.

"They're going to have different triggers," said Stephanie Sutherland, director of student services, in an interview Wednesday.

"They're going to act differently in our classrooms and we have to think differently when we're working with them."

Current mental health staff will be trained in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) which is a form of therapy intended to help people heal from traumatic events.

Sutherland said providing services within the community will allow staff to build trust and respond from an informed place, while also working with students' families.

"So there is that relationship of 'I feel safe in going down this road and being vulnerable' ... in some of our communities, our mental health staff are actually from those communities, so they understand the trauma that that community is facing," Sutherland said.

Mental health literacy

St. Albert Public Schools and the Edmonton Catholic School Division are among 13 divisions piloting projects to promote mental health literacy for students between grades 4-6.

Curricular resource guides developed by the boards, in collaboration with Alberta Health Services, will help guide teachers in discussions around topics such as stress management and mental health disorders.

Edmonton Catholic Schools spokesperson Christine Meadows said a recent survey indicated that the division needed to strengthen students' stress management skills and behaviours around seeking help.

At the senior and junior high school levels, St. Albert schools introduced similar resource guides developed primarily by Dr. Stan Kutcher from Dalhousie University in Halifax.

"This approach was research and evidence-based, not meant to diagnose anything, but rather to increase students' understanding of what mental health is, how to maintain good mental health, when to seek help, and understand what mental health disorders are and are not," Paula Power, St. Albert Public Schools spokesperson, wrote in a statement.

"Last year, AHS and the University of Calgary released curricular resources they'd developed for elementary-aged students. It had been piloted in BC and they'd [received] feedback on it and were ready to pilot it in Alberta," Power said.

"We agreed to be part of the pilot because of our past involvement and our beliefs in the value of the approach."