Date Published: Thursday, May 10, 2012
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Child and youth mental health has taken a front seat at both school boards in Muskoka this year as Trillium Lakelands District School Board and the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board each take part in the Ministry of Education’s mental health pilot project. Only 15 school boards across Ontario were chosen by the ministry to receive funding to hire a full-time district manager of mental health services for the 2011-12 school year as part of the Children and Youth Mental Health Project.
“This is an exciting time in the province of Ontario because this is the first time we’ve had a provincial strategy for mental health and addictions,” said Suzanne Witt-Foley, district manager of mental health services for TLDSB. “The strategy was released in June 2011 and also very exciting is the needs of our children and youth are being recognized.”
In Ontario, one in five children and youth has some type of mental health problem, according to Children’s Mental Health Ontario; however, only one in six are getting the help they need. This week, May 7 to 13, is Mental Health Week in Canada, with a theme of Mental Health For All emphasizing mental illness can touch anyone, including children and youth.
“Seventy per cent of adults with mental illness will tell you the symptoms started before they were 18 and 50 per cent started before they were 14,” said Witt-Foley.
Common mental health problems in children and youth include anxiety disorders, eating disorders, behaviour problems, depression, psychosis and schizophrenia, learning problems, substance abuse problems, autism spectrum disorders, and developmental delay and intellectual disabilities.
Death by suicide is the second leading cause of death in youth 15 to 19 years, behind unintentional injury or accidents.
“With this strategy there’s three priorities over the next three years,” she explained. “They are that kids and families will know where to go to get the help that they need, and services will be available and will respond in a timely way; professional and community-based children and mental health agencies and teachers will know how to identify and respond to the mental health needs of our kids; and lastly, kids will receive the types of specialized services that they need.”
Both school boards are working closely with area mental health agencies, such as Family Youth and Child Services of Muskoka, to expand the reach of services to children and to make it easier for them to get help.
Currently FYCSM staff spends one day a week at all Muskoka secondary schools.
“It’s a very successful program that offers students (service) where there are clearly barriers or obstacles in receiving children’s mental health services,” explained Krista McDonald, manager of service for community-based programs at FYCSM. “And that may be that they can’t get to our office or that they’re afraid to talk to their parents or that they’re afraid to start a counselling process.… So we have a worker who’s in the school and becomes familiar to the kids.”
“It does break down the barriers to them seeking services,” she added. “We have seen a lot of kids who really genuinely required mental health support who probably would never have come to our front door.”
Part of the problem may be that many children and youth do not realize they have mental health issues or they may have a hard time asking for help. It is, therefore, important that parents, teachers and friends are aware of possible signs, including feelings of hopelessness, extreme mood swings, poor grades or missing school, changes in sleeping or eating habits, physical complaints that doctors cannot find a cause for, withdrawal from usual activities or friends, and any other behaviours or symptoms preventing them from doing everyday activities.
Recognizing these signs is the first step to getting help.
“One whole focus is supporting students who do have a mental health disorder, but the next level after that are people who are at risk, or are displaying symptoms and having difficulties, behavioural or emotional difficulties, who don’t have a diagnosis,” explained Dr. Pat Carney, mental health lead with SMCDSB. Both boards are currently concentrating on training and educating staff through workshops and mental health guides, so they can recognize when a child needs help and can refer them to the appropriate resources.
“As we become more aware then when a child is having a down day or is a bit irritable, we don’t look so quick to just think discipline but to say ‘What’s up? What’s going on?’” suggested Carney.
“And if there is an emotional need, we all can have the understanding and the planning approach to support that child.”
“Within our school systems if we can recognize some of these symptoms and direct people to services early, that is the intent of this project,” explained Witt-Foley.
“Another major job of a school system is mental health wellness for all, so it’s teaching skills for all students that are relevant for coping with stress, and managing moods and managing relationships,” added Carney.
“The whole thing is managing your own emotional behaviour and managing relationships and when we teach the skills well in those two areas, people are well on their way to managing mental health difficulties.”
(Please note that CMHO staff does not reply to comments that are posted on news stories.)