Peace of Mind

'This is a safe place': Tackling mental health in schools

Newly created student well-being teams in two families of P.E.I. schools work the front lines to be available to children who may be struggling with anything from anxiety to relationship troubles.

Student well-being teams started at 2 families of schools in September, will be in all schools by 2019

The student well-being teams were introduced to the Westisle and Montague families of schools this fall. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

A boy pops his head into the office of the student well-being team at Hernewood Intermediate School, asking if he can play with a Rubik's Cube sitting in a basket of toys on the table.

He fixes the out-of-place-colours — ensuring all sides are matching — says thank you, then runs off to his next class.

The door is always open, says Lorna Hutt, mental health clinician and leader of the new team — not just for kids to play with toys, but also to get help with any mental or physical health issues that might be bothering them.

The Westisle student well-being team meets in its office in Hernewood Intermediate School. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

"If a student had a concern and wasn't sure where to go, then this is a safe place for them to come," she said.

"Anxiety is probably the most common problem that people are experiencing in the schools. We've seen some issues around absenteeism with students … lots around healthy relationships with peers. It's a real mixed bag," she said.

More immediate access to help

The team, which was introduced to the school this past September, is comprised of a mental health clinician, two nurses and two student outreach workers. It serves the entire Westisle family of schools as well as École Pierre-Chiasson. A similar team also started at the Montague family of schools at the same time.

The hope is that it will help students access services sooner than if they had to seek help on their own in the community.

Hutt said anxiety is probably the most common problem the team hears about. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

"There's some barriers for families to access services outside of the school," she said.

Many students are referred to the teams by guidance counsellors, classroom teachers, or school principals, but students are also able to walk in the door to talk anytime, and parents can access the teams directly as well.

According to Health PEI, the teams have seen 130 students so far.

'Trust is paramount'

The first task upon arriving this fall, explained Hutt, was to introduce themselves to students — greeting students as they get off the school bus, introducing themselves in the hallways, participating in school breakfast programs and spending time with students at lunch.

"It's probably the most important piece if we are going to develop healthy working relationships with the students. Trust is paramount," said Hutt.

The Westisle team is comprised of a mental health counsellor, two nurses and two student outreach workers. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

"Students have shared that it is a positive experience working with us, meeting with us. We've had situations where they've approached some of our team members in the community and they've felt comfortable doing so. So it's evidenced that the relationship is successful and working."

Connected to other services

While the team is based out of Hernewood, members travel throughout the family of schools to deal with student needs.

That means they also stay with students as they move from elementary to intermediate to high school, but Hutt said the hope is that the teams intervene early.

The team is also a joint venture between the departments of education, health and justice — and there are agreements in place so that team members can share information on a child's file with workers from those departments as needed.

"We're able to refer directly to a lot of the services," said Hutt.

Provincial lead for the student well-being teams Geoff MacDonald says one of the strengths of the team is the ability to coordinate with other specialists. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

In one case in Montague, said provincial lead for the program Geoff MacDonald, the team is working with clinicians from the Insight youth mental health day program to help a student transition from the program back to school life.

The teams also work with other support workers in the schools, including occupational therapists and school psychologists.

Coming to other families of schools

P.E.I. plans to roll the program out to its other schools in the next two years.

"These are demonstration projects at this point and we're getting ready to roll out phase two, but they have to be informed rollouts," said MacDonald.

The student well-being team travels throughout a family of schools to help students (Tom Steepe/CBC)

The teams will be introduced to the Morell, Souris, Bluefield and Colonel Gray families of schools in September 2018, and to the remaining families of schools — Charlottetown Rural, Kinkora, Kensington and Three Oaks — in 2019.

This story is part of an ongoing series CBC P.E.I. is doing on mental health services in the province. You can share your experiences with us here.

About the Author

Jesara Sinclair

Journalist

Jesara Sinclair is a journalist with CBC P.E.I. Prior to Charlottetown, she worked with CBC in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto. E-mail: jesara.sinclair@cbc.ca.