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High schools support mental health needs

Centre Wellington District High School is one of four Wellington County high schools that offers a number of mental health supports to students.  Photo by Kelly Waterhouse

High schools support mental health needs

by Jaime Myslik

GUELPH - High school students throughout Wellington County are being given increased access to mental health and wellness resources and services in their schools.

The Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB), which operates the four county high schools, follows the philosophy that kids do as well as they can.

“If kids aren’t doing well then it’s because they have some lagging skills or unsolved problems,” said board chief psychologist Lynn Woodford.

It’s up to the board to figure out “how do we talk with the student, look at what’s going on with them and then figure out, from them, what’s working, what isn’t working,” she said.

“Then together come up with a collaborative plan about how to better support the student in terms of what do the students really need, what does the teacher, classroom system, family feel like they need and then how can we put a plan forward to build on those lagging skills or unsolved problems.”

Woodford also said board officials believe every student’s mental wellness can be improved.

“Regardless of where you are on the continuum of mental illness, whether you have no mental illness or you have a diagnosed mental illness ... as a school board, our job is to work on increasing mental wellness for all students,” she said.

This year, principals at all UGDSB schools will roll out a series of resources to promote mental health.

They will look at what is working and not working within the schools and identifying priorities and focuses, Woodford explained.

“We’re also working with public health and community partners,” she said.

“We do so much collaborative work in terms of supporting students ... because ... we all know that they’re students ... for a bit, but they also have a whole life that goes on outside of that.

“So it’s really a whole community approach to wellbeing.”

About two years ago, mental wellbeing became one of the core focuses of the Ministry of Education with the creation of a wellbeing strategy.

The board offers various programs, including Tools for Life, Zones of Regulation, Tribes and Collaborative Practice Solutions.

“Those are all sort of wellness and mental health programs,” Woodford said. “And teachers are trained and staff is trained and then it’s all about ... focusing on building skills.”

The UGDSB also ensures that staff in each of its schools has received Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST).

ASIST is a two-day workshop that teaches attendees how to recognize if someone is having thoughts of suicide and how to work with them to ensure their immediate safety.

“All schools now have at least some ASIST-trained people,” Woodford said.

“They’d already trained all the CYCs (child and youth counsellors), social work, psych and then over the last few years ... we’ve been training to make sure we have teams in the school that are ASIST.

“So if a student has thoughts of suicide there are people right in the school that can help support them and then connect them to community services for further support.”

Staff at the schools are also trained in safeTALK, a workshop that trains attendees to be suicide-alert helpers.

“Most people with thoughts of suicide don’t truly want to die, but are struggling with the pain in their lives,” the safeTALK website states.

“Through their words and actions, they invite help to stay alive.

“SafeTALK-trained helpers can recognize these invitations and take action by connecting them with life-saving intervention resources, such as caregivers trained in ASIST.”

Each high school also offers unique mental health supports like clubs or groups run by the CYC or social worker or student clubs through an organization called Youth Talk.

“They have a coordinator that goes into all the high schools in our board and works with students and staff around promoting mental health awareness and also decreasing stigma,” Woodford said.

“Each school runs it a little bit differently. They also have different groups or clubs within the schools that may be specific towards students who ... either want to work on awareness or want various support.”

At Centre Wellington District High School (CWDHS) the leadership class offered doggy de-stress days before the exam break, during which students could spend time with dogs as well as get hot chocolate and cookies.

CWDHS also has a mental health and wellness centre called “C-Dub Hub,” which is open every day. The room is open for students who need a quiet space or individual support.

At Norwell District Secondary School staff try to keep students engaged and offer sports activities, groups and clubs.

The school also offers a daily breakfast club program that makes food available to students as needed and “spirit” days to promote “togetherness and cooperation.”

During Mental Health week in May, Norwell offers a school-wide barbecue that is subsidized and accessible to all students, promoting a sense of community.

In school support

In addition to the more autonomous programs, Woodford said the school board has various levels of support for students in each of the schools.

First, teachers work to create a caring, safe and inclusive classroom environment for all students.

“We all know that the best thing you can do to help to increase positive mental health is really to have kids feel like they’re safe and included and connected to caring adults,” Woodford said.

When a student is still struggling a school team involving the principal, special education teacher and CYC will help the teacher find different ways to support the student.

The next step is a consultant support team, which involves a psychologist, special education consultant and speech and language consultant.

“They can again discuss that this certain student is struggling and give some information support around what are some other things that could be done to better support that student, to better understand the student,” Woodford said.

“Sometimes that means more assessments, sometimes that means some observations, sometimes that is providing more supports to the teacher; there’s a variety of things that could be done at that level.”

The next step would be to involve the CYCs in elementary schools and social workers in high schools.

“They do counselling and therapeutic work with students,” Woodford said.

Psych consultants also offer consultations about mental health concerns.

“They can talk to the parent, talk to the child and then give some more support around what’s going to be the best way to support this child within the classroom and the school,” Woodford explained.

There are also specialized teams available if further intervention is needed.

There is a behaviour interventionist who looks at how the environment can best support the student and how to build skills into the whole classroom.

There is a specialized mental health interventionist who works in therapeutic ways with students who have significant mental health needs.

The board also has a specialized support team which involves psychology, speech and language, and a special education assistant who works with students with significant mental health and behaviour needs.

This group also connects with community partners.

“It’s very complicated and complex cases, so they were involved with trying to pull all those people together and make one plan for the student and the family that will be at school, as well as in the community to best support students,” Woodford said.


February 9, 2018


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