Toronto

Nearly one year into the pandemic, Toronto students continue to struggle with mental health

It’s been nearly one year since students in Ontario had a “normal” school experience —one that doesn’t involve on-line learning, masking and physical distancing — and a new survey from the province’s largest school board suggests that more kids are feeling unhappy, nervous or worried about the future.

Survey shows rising levels of nervousness and stress as experts call for better mental health supports

Around 36,000 students in the Toronto District School board took part in the survey last month before in-person classes resumed. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

It's been nearly one year since students in Ontario had a "normal" school experience — one that doesn't involve on-line learning, masking and physical distancing during a pandemic — and a new survey from the province's largest school board suggests that more are feeling unhappy, nervous or worried about the future.

Around 36,000 students in Grades 6 to 12 in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) took part in the survey, which focused on issues such as mental health, school operations and health and safety. The survey was conducted in January before students returned to in-person learning.

"Our parents, students and staff are doing the very best they can under these unprecedented circumstances. However, it is clear that some are struggling," said TDSB chair Alexander Brown in a news release.

The number of students who reported they were "happy all the time" dropped by 10 per cent compared to a similar survey last spring, and the number of students reporting they were "nervous or stressed" all the time or often went up by 16 per cent.

"While we must continue to support our students and their families, we need to do more to help support our staff, who are key to supporting our school communities," said Brown.

Since the start of the pandemic, the TDSB — and other school boards —  have stepped up to hire more social workers and other mental health workers, but some experts are calling for more accessible and consistent mental health supports outside of school in the community for children, youth and their families.

'There's a lot of uncertainty'

Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatrician at the St. Joseph's Health Centre in Toronto, said she's not surprised at the survey's findings. She's seen firsthand the impact the pandemic has had on the mental health of young people.

"There's a lot of uncertainty. I think it's very stressful when you don't feel empowered — when you have no control over what's going on ... and it's unpredictable," said Banerji.

Banerji said she believes it's important to make sure young people have access to mental health supports in the community, but said they're often difficult to find.

Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatrician and an infectious disease specialist, is calling for better and more accessible mental health supports in the community for children and young people in light of the pandemic. (Submitted by Mike Cooper)

"Some of these kids … are actually having depression, anxiety, and some of them are not coping so well."

"Families that are well-resourced often know how to find the resources in the system for mental health. But families that are struggling … maybe newcomers might not know these resources are available and may not be able to afford it."

Alison McNeil, a school social worker with the TDSB in Scarborough, said she's familiar with the problem.

Alison McNeil, a school social worker with the TDSB in Scarborough, provides counselling directly to students and families. She also helps connect them with resources, such as mental health supports, in the community. (Supplied)

McNeil — who works with elementary school children — said there has been an increased volume in calls from parents since the start of the pandemic.

She said she has worked to connect them with resources in the community. But when it comes to mental health supports, she said what's available in the community is mostly focused on shorter therapy or single-session counselling.

"One of the concerns I hear from students and parents when I refer them for community counselling is they have to share their story over and over again to different therapists," said McNeil.

"I would like to see community counselling agencies provide free, ongoing therapy with a consistent therapist."

More social workers hired

That consistency is key, said McNeil, because it allows students and their families to build trust at a time when they don't have their usual support systems.

Since the start of the pandemic, school social workers like McNeil have been working to be a consistent force within students' lives — providing them with resources they need to manage, and checking in regularly.

The TDSB found more students feel bored, stressed, nervous, and lonely compared to previous surveys. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

The TDSB has 114 school social workers and 14 others who are not assigned to a specific school. It's added three to its roster since the start of the pandemic.

Prior to the start of the pandemic, the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board employed about 43 full-time social workers but has since added five more positions due to what it called the "significant negative impact that COVID-19 has had on the well-being of students and families." 

The Toronto Catholic District School board said it too has increased its number of full-time social workers to 69.

The Peel District School Board has 70 social workers and is adding 11 mental health staff members —  including social workers — in the coming weeks.

Last summer the Ontario government pledged $10 million to hire additional mental health workers for school boards across the province.

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