Some Winnipeg schools see jump in 'unsafe behaviour,' highlighting need for timely mental health supports
Louis Riel School Division says it can't keep up with increasing student needs for mental health services
One Winnipeg school division is struggling to deal with a significant increase in student violence, aggression and bad behaviours.
Louis Riel School Division said it's seen a 263 per cent increase in the number of incidents of unsafe behaviour by students resulting in an assessment by school clinicians between this school year and the 2019-20 school year — the last year students were in-person at a comparable level.
"It's behaviour that can be risky to others," Alex Peniuta, the divison's clinical supervisor of well-being and psychology, said in an interview.
"Unfortunately it wasn't as surprising as it might have seemed, because we've seen this trend and this really aligns with what we're seeing. But it is a very big concern."
These incidents include verbal or written threats to harm others, disturbing or concerning social media posts and the destruction of school property.
The division wouldn't provide the specific number of assessments for either years. However, Peniuta said concerning incidents are up across the board, not just in the most serious cases that lead to a student needing an assessment.
"Violence and aggression is up, and that accounts for why this process or these assessments have gone up for us as well," Peniuta said.
"What we really are seeing is that young people are having a much harder time navigating conflict with others."
Trend began before pandemic
Peniuta said before the pandemic, the division was already seeing an increase in mental health concerns along with an increase of the need to involve clinical services in doing some assessment with students who engage in unsafe behaviour.
For years, the division has recognized that mental health is a growing concern among children and youth, he said.
"The pandemic exacerbated that quite a bit, and there isn't enough support either in the community or the schools to address the mounting needs," he said.
He said while the division works hard to ensure students' needs to see clinicians and access mental health supports are met in a timely manner, unfortunately people are waiting far too long to get the help they need.
According to Peniuta, there are 18 to 20 staff in the clinical area dealing with issues among a student body of more than 16,000.
"The reality is that most people need to wait quite a while before they see a specialized mental health professional," he said. "I would say that most families and most people would feel like it's not quick enough."
Not enough support
Dr. Rehman Abdulrehman, the former president of the Manitoba Psychological Society and a practising clinician, has been advocating for decades, along with others in the field, for increased access to psychological services through the public health-care system.
"I've referred to mental health in the past as a sleeping giant," he said.
"It's frustrating from a service provider perspective, because it's hard to keep up with the need, and by the time we see people, the problem is already so far advanced."
Abdulrehman now works in private practice, but previously spent 10 years in public service at the Anxiety Disorders Clinic.
He said pre-pandemic, there was an 18-month wait list for those looking to get help in the publicly funded realm, and he said the care is not always addressed toward children.
While wait times may be shorter in private practices, there still aren't enough trained staff to keep up with demand, he said.
"Even when people are ready to pay for service privately … our colleagues are inundated," he said.
"We get calls at our clinic where people are saying 'We've called 10 different clinics, nobody's accepting patients.'"
Abdulrehman said his wait list is currently sitting at six months, which he said is still too long for a family to wait when they've got a child in need.
While stigma used to keep many people from seeking help, Abdulrehman said now it's the lack of access to services.
He said regardless of which political party has been in power, the needle never moves and now the problem has gotten even worse.
CBC requested comment from the province's minister of mental health and community wellness, but a response wasn't received before deadline.
As of Jan. 13, there were 252 psychologists registered with the Psychological Association of Manitoba, according to the province. Any of those psychologists may provide sessions under provincial health-care coverage, but it's not clear how many actually do.
Last June, the province announced funding for an additional five psychology positions in the health system.
Abdulrehman said the government needs to make a major investment in mental health services, including training and hiring more psychologists and having services covered under the public health-care system.
"We're really seeing a system that's breaking," he said. "So the message here is to the politicians: Get your act together and take care of your citizens. This is on your heads."