School guidance counsellors ‘stretched’ amid rising mental health needs

School guidance counsellors ‘stretched’ amid rising mental health needs
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The kids are struggling and so are their guidance counsellors, as they try to meet the rising demand for mental health support in high schools across Ontario, a new survey by People for Education has found.

Responses from about 1,200 principals last fall indicate that meeting mental health needs is “a huge challenge for guidance staff,” says the report, released Tuesday.

“Principals are saying ‘we’ve got a crisis here in terms of the mental health piece and we don’t have enough staff to address it, either through psychologists and social workers or through guidance,’ ” says Annie Kidder, executive director of the research and advocacy group.

People for Education has spent years documenting the decline in public school staff who play key roles in educating and helping students outside the classroom and highlighting their importance.

Currently, the province funds one full-time guidance teacher for every 385 high school students, though currently the actual average is 396 students per counsellor.

However, one in 10 high schools is sharing a single counsellor among 826 students, according to the survey. And the picture is particularly grim outside urban areas.

While most counsellors said their biggest role is helping teenagers with academic issues such as course selections and post-secondary options, 26 per cent said providing one-on-one counselling for kids with mental health challenges is the most time-consuming part of the job.

With only half the schools able to regularly access a psychologist, and a shortage of school social workers, “the role of guidance counsellors may be stretched to fill the gaps,” says the report.

It comes on the heels of recommendations from Ontario’s student trustees, who made mental health resources in schools a central pillar of their “student platform” in advance of the June provincial election.

The Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, representing 2 million students, called on the province to mandate suicide prevention training for all guidance teachers and funding for additional mental health training for staff.

Because of the burgeoning need, the student leaders are also seeking funding to train youth about where to turn if they are worried about a friend, and the rights of students to form well-being clubs in their schools.

The explosion of mental health issues among children and youth has been documented by such groups as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Children’s Mental Health Ontario and Colleges Ontario .

A combination of more willingness to speak openly about it and the evolving role of schools means, “there is an assumption that somehow school will help deal with this,” says Kidder.

But without more resources “schools aren’t equipped for the most part,” she warned.

As principal of R.H. King Academy in Toronto, David Rowan has a birds-eye view of the current pressure on teenagers.

His public school of 1,234 students has the equivalent of 3.5 guidance full-time counsellors, who are attuned to the stress that comes with adolescence and transitions to high school and post-secondary.

“It really is an important role,” says Rowan, whose school was the first in Toronto to have launched a weeklong November break called “Wellness Week” aimed at relieving stress during a traditionally high-pressure time of year.

The three-year pilot project, which started in 2016, means students start school a week earlier in the fall.

Rowan notes that while guidance counsellors are key, other teachers can also be mentors and sources of support and guidance for students needing help.

The People for Education report reiterated its earlier findings about the scarcity of , where the situation is even worse, with school boards getting enough funds to hire one counsellor for every 5,000 students.

This year, only 14 per cent of elementary schools have a counsellor, working on site an average of 1.5 days a week.

It’s an issue also raised by student trustees, who want the ratio changed to match that of high schools.

Kidder says elementary schools that offer Grades 7 and 8 should be funded so the counsellor-per-student ratio matches that of secondary schools, so kids entering adolescence and high school get the support they need.

The report also recommends evaluating and aligning the role of guidance counsellor — a position Kidder says includes no concrete job description — to clarify responsibilities and training.

It also wants the province to explore cost-effective ways to ensure that students in rural areas with far fewer resources get the same access to guidance services as their urban peers.

While Kidder’s group has been calling for similar changes for years, she says it makes more sense now than ever, given the Ministry of Education’s focus on well-being last fall, and its recognition that a successful education system must go beyond reading, writing and math.

“We need more than just teachers in classrooms and principals,” she said. Guidance counsellors are among the other educators who are essential for students, she added.
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