More than 90 per cent of Ontario schools lack mental health supports: report

More than 90 per cent of Ontario schools lack mental health supports: report

The percentage of Ontario schools with no access to a psychologist has nearly doubled over the last decade — a symptom of a system of “under severe stress,” according to a report published Monday by Toronto-based non-profit People for Education.

It comes as young Canadians report declining mental health, leaving overburdened education workers trapped in a “downward spiral” as they confront COVID-19’s ripple effects, the report said.

“The worry is that people think everything has gone back to normal,” said Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education.

“What principals are saying — and what so many are saying — is that the kids aren’t all right.”

The survey of principals at more than a thousand elementary and secondary institutions across the province found 91 per cent of schools were in need of mental health support from psychologists, social workers or other specialists.

In 2011, only 14 per cent of elementary schools reported having no access to a psychologist. But by 2022, the report notes, that figure jumped to 28 per cent.

The percentage of secondary schools with no psychologist services also nearly doubled over the same time period.

Meanwhile, just nine per cent of all Ontario schools have regular access to other kinds of mental health specialists. Some 46 per cent of schools reported having no access at all.

Nicolle Kuiper, a Grade 7 teacher with the Halton District School Board, said she sees a system “teetering on the verge of collapse.

“You can’t teach kids algebra when they feel their whole world is crumbling.”

Pandemic disruptions have made it harder for young people to focus in class, said Kuiper, who sees “just so much anxiety” among students. Absorbing curriculum or preparing for future jobs is difficult without first addressing kids’ emotional well-being, she added.

Kuiper said the most support she’s seen in her workplace is a child and youth counselor split between two schools — a resource that “barely scratches the surface” of what is needed.

For some schools, said Sandra Donaghue, president of the Catholic Principals’ Council of Ontario, the biggest hurdle is finding trained mental health professionals in their communities.

Central, southwestern and northern Ontario schools have significantly lower levels of regular, in-person access to psychologists or social workers than schools in the GTA, the People for Education report found.

“It speaks to what we’ve always known about the regional disparities that exist within our province,” said Donaghue.

Nationwide data indicates increasingly poor mental health among young people. Three years ago, almost three-quarters of children ages 12 to 17 described their mental health as good or excellent, according to Statistics Canada. Last year, that number dropped to 61 per cent.

A report last year from the Toronto Board of Health also noted an increase in emergency department visits related to self-harm among children and youth.

These mounting challenges are compounded by burnout and increased workload amongst education staff, the People for Education report found, leading to a “downward spiral” of increased absenteeism and added pressure on remaining employees.

Some 82 per cent of schools surveyed in the report said they needed more support staff such as educational assistants, administrators and custodians.

In a statement, Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario president Karen Brown said educators and students “need an education budget that prioritizes their mental health, well-being, and academic success.”

“We’re not mental health professionals,” added Kuiper. “We became teachers because we love (students). And when you feel like you can’t help them, that takes a huge toll.”

The long-term impact of weak mental health services for young people is well-documented: the World Health Organization notes that support gaps can hamper young people’s physical and mental well-being into adulthood, undermining their ability to “lead fulfilling lives.”

The report calls on the province to establish a Health and Education task force to take a holistic look at how to address schools’ challenges, relying on feedback from education workers, mental health professionals, and most importantly — young people.

A spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement that the provincial government has made significant investments in mental health services in schools, including funding the hiring of 7,000 education workers.

“Since day one, our government has increased funding in mental health, now by over 400 per cent, along with a 9 per cent increase in regulated mental health professionals in the last two years alone,” the statement said.

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