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More dollars for youth mental health and pediatric rehabilitation

The Alberta government is catching on to a problem Chinook’s Edge School Division (CESD) has been seeing for a while – that today’s youth need help.

On July 28, the Alberta government announced it will be dedicating $42 million over the next three years to increase mental wellness supports and clinical mental health supports in schools.

“Children and youth in Alberta deserve the opportunity to improve their mental health and be supported in their wellness,” said Mike Ellis, associate minister of mental health and addictions. “As part of a recovery-oriented system of care, we are ensuring that kids have the supports they need in schools to achieve their full potential and live healthy and happy lives.”

“When students experience positive mental health, they are resilient and better able to learn, achieve success and build healthy relationships,” said Adriana LaGrange, minister of education. “Ensuring students have additional access to more mental health services and programs, including preventative and early intervention services, is essential and adds to the wide variety of supports already available in schools.”

This increased access to mental health supports will begin in Calgary and Edmonton schools in the 2022/2023 school year, with the plan to expand across the province.

According to the government press release, CASA Child, Adolescent and Family Mental Health, as well as various other partners, is supporting the development of an integrated school-based services model, offering families and their children access to existing community services.

For students that have more complex needs, specialized clinical services will be available through new mental health classrooms. Mental health classroom teams will consist of a mental health therapist, psychiatrist and classroom behavioural specialist. The teams will be supported by a health team that includes a nurse, social worker, educational psychologist, speech and language therapist and occupational therapist. These services will first be established in select schools in the Edmonton zone, with more to follow across the province.

This additional funding will also expand the Integrated School Support Program, which provides students with prevention and early intervention supports, such as meal programs, after-school care, structured physical education and access to mental health professionals.

“The good news is the government is recognizing there are some serious considerations when it comes to youth mental health in our schools,” said Kurt Sacher, superintendent of schools for CESD. Sacher added the school division still needs to get the fine details, such as how much money will be coming in, before they can decide how best to spend it.

During the middle of the 2021/2022 school year, CESD implemented a social/emotional program across the division, bringing mental health experts to work within the schools to support teachers and administration in dealing with complex mental health concerns when it comes to the students.

“Some of the issues we’re dealing with are significantly more complex than we’ve dealt with in the past,” said Sacher. “We have six social/emotional specialists in our school division, two in each of our three zones. Our board has put significant investment into this area.”

Sacher said these complex cases require assistance and knowledge the school board just didn’t have.

“Students can be assessed and receive some long-term support from Alberta Health Services,” said Sacher. “But regardless, the administration will still be left with a student that has significant mental health-related behavioural issues.” But with the addition of the social/emotional workers, Sacher said the school can still move forward with these students.

“We were noticing it before the pandemic, and it’s just gotten worse,” Sacher said of the mental health concerns with students. “All the stress and strain the pandemic has put on individuals and families, it was a little bit like adding gasoline to a fire that was already burning.”

The $42 million in funding is above and beyond the $10 million per year for the 2022/2023 and 2023/2024 school years that the government has allocated to support pilot projects focused on improving delivery of mental health supports and services for students, as well as tools, training and resources for the school community.

During the July 28 announcement, the Alberta government also promised $45 million over the next three years to increase access to and improve the quality of pediatric rehabilitation services and programs, such as speech-language, occupational therapy and physical therapy. These supports are offered by Alberta Health Services, with early identification efforts beginning at the school level.

This additional funding will support establishing a clear intake, triage and access to services; developing universal and targeted resources and programming for families; expanding eligibility for speech sound delays and disorders and mobility and positioning from birth to 18 years; as well as strengthening pediatric rehabilitation and teams to support care long term.

The Alberta government is also dedicating $10 million a year for the next two school years to ensure students can receive access to specialized assessments that they may not have had access to during the pandemic years.

This recent announcement lines up with the government’s Child and Youth Well-being Action Plan, established in May.

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