Edmonton public school board wants more funding from province for student mental health

The Edmonton Public School Board voted unanimously on Monday to ask the Alberta government for increased funding and improved access to mental health services in schools.

Mental health services in Alberta schools have been overlooked, trustee says

The Edmonton Public School Board voted unanimously Monday to advocate for increased mental health resources from the Alberta government. (Shutterstock/Syda Productions)

The Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) voted unanimously on Monday to ask the provincial government for increased funding and improved access to mental health services in schools.

Ward C trustee Shelagh Dunn brought forward the motion due to what she says is a lack of available resources for students. She advocated for stable, additional funding and offices within schools for mental health professionals.

She explained that one in five youths have a diagnosable mental illness, citing statistics from the Canadian Mental Health Association. Of those who do, only one in five get help, she said.

Dunn said there is a "significant gap" in the provincial system.

"It really impacts students in our schools because they're in that age group where there's less services, and then it's very difficult to access those services if you don't have the funding to pay out of pocket," she said, citing findings of a 2014 University of Alberta study called Gap Analysis of Public Mental Health and Addictions Programs.

Trustees Shelagh Dunn and Trisha Estabrooks high five after Dunn's mental health motion passes unanimously. (Edmonton Public School Board)

Dunn, who is also a psychologist, has heard the frustrations firsthand from families and students when it comes to getting the help they need. Barriers include cost, long distances to services, and not having transportation.

The school board is currently piloting a mental health program called "All in for Youth" at some schools. Those schools have a full-time, on-site therapist funded by United Way. But that funding is often unpredictable or unsustainable, Dunn said.

Her goal is to have mental health professionals who can establish long-standing relationships in schools.

"Mental health is actually under the healthcare banner, so if we're trying to fund the healthcare needs of students out of solely education dollars, it's just not something that's feasible and it requires collaboration and cooperation across ministries," she said, adding that she's optimistic this request is doable.

The role of technology

Ward F trustee Michael Janz raised the issue of teen mental health problems that stem from smartphone use. 

Dunn does not want to conflate the cause with the problem itself, and suggested keeping the two conversations — prevention versus treatment — separate.

Mental health was always an issue even before cellphones, she explained. Ultimately, Dunn said it needs to be easier for students to access mental health services. 

"If you have a mental health therapist that you've seen 100 times and all you have to do to talk to him or her is knock on a door in your school, I think it reduces the barriers significantly, and that's what success looks like to me," Dunn said.  

EPSB vice-chair Bridget Stirling strongly supported the motion.

"I think having somebody with that expertise who works alongside a school brings big benefits to the whole school community as well as to those kids who need that targeted individual support," she said.

With Tuesday's vote, letters will be sent to the Minister of Education, the Minister of Health, and the Minister of Infrastructure requesting collaboration and funding.