WELLINGTON COUNTY – With the start of school year less than a week away, local school boards and community organizations are working to ensure mental health is at the forefront for students and families as they return to school.
According to a Canadian Mental Health Association Waterloo Wellington (CMHA WW) press release, 70 per cent of school-aged children and 66% of pre-school aged children have experienced a deterioration in their mental health and have shown mental health struggles since the beginning of the pandemic.
Krista Sibbilin, director of Children’s Services at CMHA WW, said a lack of social connection has had a major impact on youths’ mental health over the past year.
“There’s a lot of unknowns and there’s a lack of social interaction and connection,” she explained.
“When we don’t have that connection, often anxiety and depression can set in for youth and sometimes it appears to be a lack of control.”
Sibbilin noted youth may be more vulnerable than other ages affected by the pandemic as they’re still in the development stages, growing into who they are and deciding their direction in life.
“We know youth and the need of social connection is extremely important for their own growth and development and building their self-confidence and building their self-esteem,” she noted.
When it comes to students heading back to school, Sibbilin said one of the bigger concerns facing youth is anxiety.
“I think there’s a lot of anxiety around what school’s going to look like with an off-and-on year last year,” she explained.
“There’s lot of concern around a fourth wave. There’s a lot of concerns around the vaccination so I think for youth going into school, those are some of the worries.
“And for those kids that are graduating or preparing to graduate and looking at what their next steps are, that’s another anxiety-provoking piece where that sits in with their school life.”
Sibbilin also noted it’s positive news that schools are opening and that students will have access to social connection, adding in-person collaboration and learning is very different.
She explained an important piece for the CMHA WW is that youth are talking, and that they can find supports on the association’s website at www.here4help.ca in addition to mental health supports in schools.
“From a collaborative partnership perspective, we try to work together within our community so youth don’t fall through the cracks or have those gaps,” she said.
“And if we do get those gaps, that we are able to identify those and hopefully we can address them as soon as possible.”
Sibbilin’s advice to families and students navigating the stresses of returning to school is to build a routine and create structure, including things like setting a bedtime and healthy eating.
“A couple things for me is just having parents or someone that youth can talk to and available to listen and hear what they’re saying and help them work through those feelings,” she explained.
“I think just youth feeling like they can be heard because this has been a very up and down time for them.”
Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB) mental health and addiction lead Jenny Marino said the board continued to provide several services and support programs over the course of the summer to bridge the gap.
“We put a tremendous amount of time and energy into ensuring support and transitions so that kids and families are not just coming back from one thing to the next with a huge break in between,” she explained.
She added board officials are working to build on what they’ve learned over the last year, noting despite having learned a lot, they’re still sitting on a lot of ambiguity.
“It’s the not knowing and the wondering if we’re going to have a fourth wave; all of those things are on the top of everyone’s mind not just our students and families,” Marino said.
She added there were constant shifts in structure last year, moving between in-person and virtual learning.
“It’s a big shift for students. They’ve had a different year last year and I think it’s also different for parents,” said Marino.
“I think they have a lot of worries about health and safety despite all the work we do to ensure it for our staff and students.”
Marino explained it won’t be business as usual, but the board is working to ensure people feel it’s a safe and welcoming environment, adding people may be returning with different experiences.
“We’ve all been exposed to some pretty significant racial inequities over the course of the pandemic and significant racism,” she noted.
“I think that is definitely disproportionately going to affect our BIPOC community and we need to take that into consideration in everything that we do.”
Marino emphasized the importance of ensuring children make connections again as they re-enter school and making sure they know about the supports they have within the school system and the community.
Sony Brar, mental health lead and manager of student mental health services at the Wellington Catholic District School Board (WCDSB), also said the board has been putting a lot of effort into supporting a mentally-healthy transition back to school.
“This is going to be another big transition coming,” Brar explained.
“It’s been quite a while since our students have been out of school so we want to make sure that we are sharing the information that we can of how we can make that as smooth as possible.”
As part of the return to school, the WCDSB created a few hundred wellness kits for students. Brar recognizes there’s not enough for every student, but she explained the kits are mainly for students that are disproportionately impact by COVID-19.
“We’re trying to prioritize students who are disproportionately impacted by COVID and maybe don’t necessarily have the means to purchase those regulation tools and that’s also to support the transition back for this fall,” she said.
She added all staff are being trained on how to support a mentally-healthy return to school, which she explained is rooted in reconnecting relationships and promoting wellness with students.
The board has also increased its mental health treatment team in the hopes that will improve and increase access to services.
“We all expect that the needs will be a bit higher, symptoms might be a bit higher,” Brar said.
“We’re all getting to learn our students again … learning where they’re at now, what their life has been like this whole time that they’ve been away.
“So we need to be prepared to honour those realities … And our hope is that we’ve prepared for that.”
Brar added the board is working to make sure services are available to students to support their needs, noting school is essentially the first contact for youth.
“They spend some of their most waking hours connected to a school community and so naturally we are often one of the first to be able to notice that there might be some emerging concerns,” she said.
She noted the board has always prioritized student mental health and wellbeing but with the ongoing pandemic, it has been brought even further to the forefront.
“They really see a value in that, and they understand unless our kids are well, it really can impact learning, so the first thing we need to make sure is that our kids are well,” said Brar.