Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. in desperate need of more guidance counsellors, says teachers' union president

The Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association's president says students don't have the resources they need in their schools.

NLTA boss says province has half the number of counsellors needed

Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association president Dean Ingram says the province's schools need more counselling resources. (Paula Gale/CBC)

At a time when students in Newfoundland and Labrador are facing more emotional and mental needs than perhaps ever before, the province's teachers' union says schools have only half the number of guidance counsellors and psychologists needed.

"One can certainly argue that the need for interventions and counselling for youth has never been higher," Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association president Dean Ingram told The Central Morning Show on Tuesday.

It's a statement that's backed up by research.

A report released by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in 2016 found that Canadian middle and high schoolers who reported experiencing serious psychological distress within the past month had jumped to 34 per cent in 2015 from 24 per cent in 2013.

As teens get older, those levels go up.

"We have seen a huge surge in levels of anxiety in our kids and our teens," said Dr. Janine Hubbard, a registered psychologist who works with children.

Ingram pointed to a recent incident at Prince of Wales Collegiate in St. John's in which several students were hit by suspected bear spray and sent to hospital as a sign of the need for help in schools in the province.

"I'd make the argument that if you want to deliver effective mental health services for youth, you put the services where youth are — and that, of course, would be our schools."

One counsellor per 500 students

Ingram said the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association recommends one counsellor per 250 students and one psychologist per 500, though the association said in a statement that they don't have a specific position on student/counsellor ratios given the importance of context.

In a statement to CBC News, the NLTA said there is no formal recommendation for counsellor and psychologist ratios set for Canadian schools.

However, in numerous presentations across the country, staffing levels of one school counsellor per 250 students and one school psychologist per 500 students have been presented.

Incidents like a recent suspected bear spray attack at a St. John's school highlight the need for resources for students, Ingram said. (Fred Hutton/CBC)

In the 2017-18 school year there were 65,051 students in 256 schools, according to Department of Education statistics, which translates into a ratio of guidance counsellors to students of about one to 500.

The department did not respond to a request for comment from CBC News before publication.

Province employs 155 guidance counsellors

Recommendations to increase the numbers of guidance counsellors date back more than a decade, when the provincial government launched a teacher allocation commission.

In a document released in 2007, called Education and Our Future, that commission recommended an allocation of one guidance counsellor per 333 students.

Schools in the province are staffed with both guidance counsellors and educational psychologists, the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District said in a statement to CBC News.

"It should also be noted that while the EECD ratio provides for 130 guidance counsellors, the district does have some flexibility to assign additional resources to meet the needs of schools," it read. "As such, there are currently 155 guidance counsellors deployed in just over 250 schools."

When there is an unanticipated or urgent need for counsellors a school or district crisis team will be brought in as needed, the NLESD said. Meanwhile, each school has such a crisis team with a guidance counsellor assigned, with varying levels of training.

Many counsellors cover multiple schools

The fact that many counsellors cover multiple schools is another concern, Ingram said. The result is several schools with counsellors on premises part time, and it can be difficult to hire for those roles because of the travel time involved.

Students don't necessarily wait until the day their counsellor is in the building to have their concerns.- Dean Ingram

"When you have school counsellors spread over a wide geographic area, the challenge then is that students don't necessarily wait until the day their counsellor is in the building to have their concerns and issues," he said.

When a counsellor or psychologist is not available the onus often falls on teachers and support staff who are not trained to deal with these issues, Hubbard said, especially when they are severe.

Issues that start out as less serious can escalate if not dealt with in a timely and effective way, she said. Anxiety can go from worry about an upcoming test to physical symptoms and a debilitating anxiety disorder.

"If not addressed early on, emerging mental health concerns such as anxiety or depression can go from fairly minor issues with treatment to, in some cases, very disabling conditions."

The best way to deal with many of the issues in schools is to be proactive, Ingram said, which is more difficult when there isn't a dedicated counsellor on staff.

The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District head office in St. John's. (CBC)

"Sharing staff across schools occurs in many jurisdictions across Canada, particularly in rural regions, where school enrolments are typically lower than in urban areas," the district said.

In this province, challenges are mitigated through those crisis teams, school staff, regional offices and virtual options, it continued.

Finding longer-term solutions to shortages can help bridge the gap between a need for — and willingness to accept — help and the availability of that help.

The result of counsellor and psychologist shortages is that, thanks to efforts to reduce the stigma of mental illness, we now have students who are more willing than ever to share their struggles, but aren't finding the resources and support they need when they do, Hubbard said.

"We've opened up the box in terms of the discussion, but we haven't followed that up with the necessary supports."

With files from The Central Morning Show

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this article stated the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association recommends one counsellor per 250 students and one psychologist per 500. However, the association does not have a position on such ratios due to the importance of context for each situation.
    Oct 01, 2018 9:44 AM NT

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