Healthy minds, healthy students

Red Deer Public Schools has launched a new, cutting edge program to support student mental wellness. The Resiliency Program, targeting local students in Grades 6 to 12, strives to help teens recognize mental health issues from the onset and then link them up with adequate resources and support.

Red Deer Public Schools has launched a new, cutting edge program to support student mental wellness.

The Resiliency Program, targeting local students in Grades 6 to 12, strives to help teens recognize mental health issues from the onset and then link them up with adequate resources and support.

Calling the action long overdue, superintendent of Red Deer Public Schools Piet Langstraat said he strongly believes society as a whole needs to start talking more about positive mental health.

The Resiliency Program addresses that need, he said, providing universal support to all adolescents, actively teaching strategies on how to deal with the tough life challenges many face throughout their lives. It’s being piloted in five schools this year: Lindsay Thurber and Hunting Hills high schools, as well as Central, Eastview and Westpark middle schools.

If all goes well, Langstraat said the board hopes to expand the program to all Red Deer Public Schools with Grades 6 to 12 by next year.

The program takes a two-pronged approach, starting with a screening through a survey done on iPads. The survey was rolled out earlier this month and the schools are in the process of compiling the results. This screening can identify the students who are really struggling, followed by the next step of “rapidly accessing the supports that we need to put in place to help those young people; targeted intervention,” Langstraat said.

Next month, the program will evolve into 16 in-classroom lessons on resiliency as part of the health curriculum. Online modules will also be available at that time for students who would benefit from additional supports.

“It really does focus on teaching kids strategies for when they are starting to feel badly or feeling depressed or anxious, showing them there is a way that you can train yourself to switch your thinking and look at the brighter side of things,” Langstraat said.

Operating in partnership with Alberta Health Services and the Red Deer Primary Care Network, the Resiliency Program is the first of its kind in Alberta, said Dr. Verna Yiu, vice-president and chief medical officer of quality and medical affairs with Alberta Health Services.

“It’s quite unique and what’s innovative about it is that it’s a partnership program. … There are other, smaller programs in Alberta schools involving mental health but we don’t have one that is a partnership and this is also a partnership across ministries,” she said.

The program, which will be piloted for four years, is not only under the scope of Alberta Health Services, but also the Human Services, Justice and Education ministries, said Yiu.

“There’s no question that mental health is a big issue, especially amongst our youth. Mental health supports for our youth are not only being recognized as being more frequent but it’s also a gap area for many teens,” Yiu said.

Yiu said if the pilot goes well, they would like to see the program rolled out across the province in coming years.

The pilot is part of a larger research undertaking by the provincial departments to help identify what interventions work best for preventing and addressing mental health in youth, in hopes of seeing positive results such as a reduction in such mental health symptoms like depression or anxiety, tobacco and drugs of abuse and improved school attendance and completion rates, Yiu said.

Covered by a grant from AHS, the program is costing Red Deer Public roughly $500,000 for its first year, said Langstraat.

According to Yiu, AHS has also recently begun working with the other departments to create a provincewide “adolescent depression care pathway” that will focus on outpatient mental health clinics with links to primary care and additional referrals for care for youth.

Alberta universities and colleges are also taking action to tackle mental health concerns.

The Alberta Students Executive Council lobby group received $1.5 million from the Department of Health last summer and Red Deer College applied for and received $24,000 of that.

“Studies have shown that one out of four Alberta students is experiencing some sort of mental health issue, whether it’s stress or anxiety or depression. This is something that’s a trending issue and we’re just creating awareness and hoping to reduce stigma,” said Martin Cruz, president of the college’s student association.

At RDC, students can access an online assessment tool where they answer a set of questions, get a letter from the website and can take it to a professional. The school also hosted a mental health awareness week in the fall with various activities promoting a healthy lifestyle and ways to decrease problems, such as puppy therapy. Another one is scheduled for late March.

The school plans to apply for more funds in hopes of offering workshops, such as cooking basics, ideal for those students far from home who might be struggling, Cruz said.

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