An increase in suicidal ideation and attempts, addictions, and sexual assaults has a central Alberta school division calling for more rural mental health services for students.
A letter to Health Minister Jason Copping from school board chair Daryl Scott, with Wild Rose School Division, said after a suicide attempt, hospitals often release at-risk students without any mental health assessments nor treatment because there are no beds available.
Scott said in recent years students needing mental health services have waited three to six months, and this school year Rocky Mountain House and Drayton Valley students went for three months without access to mental health supports from Alberta Health Services.
“We have an alarming lack of mental health resources in our area, and as it often happens, the bulk of the burden falls to schools, being the most accessible hub for our communities,” Scott said in the letter.
The school division said it has access to four AHS mental health workers in the region, but during the pandemic some communities did not have access to workers for extended periods of time.
Wild Rose, which also has schools in Caroline, Condor and Breton, either wants targeted mental health funding from AHS to support students, or more robust mental health supports in rural communities.
The division said the lack of community resources means it must spend educational dollars to provide support to students.
“Provision of mental health services is the responsibility of the Alberta Health portfolio, not the Alberta Education portfolio. Yet, year over year, we spend valuable instructional dollars meeting the mental health needs of the students in our communities,” Scott said.
In 2022-23, Wild Rose will spend $1.3 million on mental health supports, and its school board wants to meet with Copping.
Katherine Stavropoulos, press secretary for the Education Minister, said in a statement that as part of the cross-ministerial work on the Alberta Child and Youth Well-being Action Plan and through Budget 2022, the province has allocated an additional $110 million over three years to address mental health and wellness and COVID-19 learning loss.
“This includes up to $10 million per year for 2022/23 and 2023/24 to support pilot projects focused on enhancing a school authority’s mental health continuum of supports and services, including tools, training and resources for the school community,” Stavropoulos said.
“This is in addition to the $1.4 billion in Learning Supports Funding provided directly to schools each year, to help support our most vulnerable students. This includes funding for Specialized Learning Support Grant. Through this grant, funding is provided to ensure schools can offer student wellness programs.”
Pilot project application details, including requirements, will be shared with school authorities by Alberta Education when it becomes available.
Wild Rose superintendent Brad Volkman said the division is waiting for those project details, but Alberta Health also needs to do more to support rural students and their families.
“It’s always a challenge for our smaller rural areas to get some of those experts here. That makes the problem even worse. We’re always competing against the big cities,” Volkman said.