Dr. Peter Silverstone (Photo contributed)

Evaluation shows school mental health program made a difference in Red Deer

Psychiatrist makes appeal for provincial program

A psychiatrist who was involved with a pilot mental health project with the Red Deer Public School District said that early invention can make a huge difference in people’s lives.

Peter Silverstone, professor of psychiatry at the University of Alberta, created the EMPATHY program after he learned of several youth suicides in Red Deer in the 2013-2014 school year.

A recently published follow-up study of the impact of the project in Red Deer Public schools showed a marked reduction in the number of actively suicidal students, he said on Tuesday.

While funding for the 16-month program that began in 2015 was not renewed after the provincial government changed, Silverstone is advocating for the program to be available across Alberta. Red Deer Public School District has continued to use aspects of it.

Silverstone believes the money is there because the federal government allocated funding earlier this year to help prevent mental health problems in youth. Red Deer Public School District has continued to use aspects of the program.

The follow-up study revealed that EMPATHY did help to reduce depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts in youth. The program, which was offered to 6,000 youth in Grades 6 to 12 in Red Deer Public Schools, saw a decrease in the number of students who were actively suicidal from 4.4 to 2.8 per cent, Silverstone said.

“Now that you have this compelling long-term data, government please, think about funding it widely.”

“It was very gratifying to essentially halve the number of kids who felt actively suicidal. Of course that isn’t sufficient … those particular kids who then feel suicidal after all of that were the ones who were usually referred for more expert, longer term help.”

The difference and uniqueness of the Red Deer pilot was the multi-level approach, Silverstone said.

RDPS sought the advice of the U of A, and Alberta Health Services, to design a cutting-edge leading program “to try and reduce this horrible, horrible, set of tragedies and stop them happening in the future.” He said the program did that.

He helped design the comprehensive program that RDPS implemented, with the multiple components.

First, through screening, they found out out how many kids had feelings of being depressed, sad or anxious, or were using drugs and alcohol, and how many were feeling suicidal.

Silverstone said he was shocked to learn that one in every in 25 kids, or one in every classroom, was feeling actively suicidal. He doesn’t believe this is unique to Red Deer — rather, it’s under-recognized. In many case parents were not aware of the problem.

They also learned during the pilot project that about one-fifth of students at every grade had significant anxiety.

Health classes were designed to help students increase their resiliency, and resiliency coaches with experience with youth were employed to connect with students.

“Red Deer Public Schools has been extraordinary and has implemented many of the learnings from this,” Silverstone said.

“These sorts of interventions have a major, major impact.”

Stu Henry, superintendent of Red Deer Public Schools, said the results show there is a need for mental health training among youth.

barr@reddeeradvocate.com

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