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Mental Health Survey Update

Northern Lights Public Schools would like to thank all of the students, and parents and guardians who participated in Mental Health surveys this spring.

“The information that was provided is incredibly valuable to the Board as we identify how best to move forward to address the needs of students and to advocate for adequate funding and access to mental health resources,” said Board Chair Karen Packard.

In March, over 70% of NLPS students in Kindergarten through Grade 12 completed a mental health survey that asked questions focusing on four areas: Student Potential, Responding to Stress, Ability to Learn and Work, and Desire to Engage in Daily Activities.

Parents and guardians had the opportunity to complete a survey through Engage NLPS in late March/early April with questions about school atmosphere, school mental health services, student mental health experiences, services and supports, and parent learning opportunities. A total of 437 parents responded, representing 12.8% of the division's students.

“The surveys support the anecdotal evidence that we were already hearing from our staff, students and parents,” Packard explained. “Many of our students are struggling with aspects of their mental health and families are experiencing significant barriers to accessing services locally and in a timely manner. This is unacceptable. Families should not have to travel 7 to 8 hours for their child to see a psychiatrist or another mental health practitioner.” 

NLPS has identified several highlights from the surveys completed by students and parents/guardians including:

  • Over 96% of Kindergarten to Grade 2 students agreed that their teacher wants them to do their best
  • Over 85% of Grade 7 to 12 students agree or strongly agree that they are hopeful about their future
  • Students seem to be able to control their worrying and they do not feel afraid, as if something awful might happen
  • Over 87% of students in grades 3 to 12 agreed or strongly agreed that they have a safe adult they can talk to at home
  • Over 80% of parents agreed or strongly agreed that their child's school is a welcoming place to be.
  • 79% of parents indicated their child is hopeful about their future.

Several areas of concern have also been identified:

  • Over 25% of students in grades 3 to 12 indicated that they did not know what to do to try and manage their feelings when they are upset. Only 60% of parents indicated that their child knows what they can do to try and handle their feelings when they are upset.
  • Over 25% of students indicated they don't feel that a lot of things about them are good.
  • Approximately 20% of students in grades 3 to 12 students reported that in the two months prior to the survey, they struggled with feeling nervous, anxious or on edge, or with becoming easily annoyed or irritable.
  • 37% of students in grades 3 to 12 either disagree or strongly disagree that they can talk to an adult at school about their problems. Only 54% of parents felt their child could talk to an adult at school about their problems.
  • 29% of students in grades 3 to 12 either disagree or strongly disagree that they belong in their school community. Some parents and guardians also indicated that their children do not feel a sense of belonging at school and that they don’t feel students at their child’s school care about each other. 
  • Over 48% of students in grades 7 to 12 disagree or strongly disagree that they are engaged and interested in daily activities.
  • Some parents indicated that they did not know if their child had opportunities to learn about mental health, is taught skills and knowledge to maintain mental health, or have access to mental health resources at school.
  • Very few parents indicated they would feel comfortable explaining to others what mental health services or supports are available in their school or community.
  • Almost half of the parents surveyed indicated they had tried to access outside services and supports since 2020, including therapists (64%), psychologists (52%), and psychiatrists (32%)
  • Parents indicated the greatest barriers to accessing supports for their children are that the services aren't available locally (50%), long waiting lists (51%) and cost (37%).

School administrators recently reviewed the division data from both surveys as well as the data for each of their schools. They also reviewed the data collected by the division’s Student Advocacy Counsellors. So far this year, 1,430 referrals were made to school counsellors. The data can help schools identify if referrals are coming about particular topics and whether there are concerns in a specific grade or classroom.It can also help identify what resources a school needs or what professional development staff may benefit from. 

The division and each school are now identifying what next steps will be taken to address the areas of concern that were identified. The division will be updating the strategies identified in its Three-Year Education Plan, which is due to be approved at the end of May. Schools will include strategies in their individual school plans. 

In addition, the Board of Trustees will be identifying strategies to advocate for mental health services for youth. 

“The mental health of our students significantly impacts how our students are able to learn in our classrooms,” said Packard. “Students can’t excel academically if they aren’t able to regulate, and when there are significant numbers of students who can’t regulate, that can affect the learning environment and achievement of other students in the classroom as well.”

Packard commended NLPS teachers and support staff for the work they are doing to support students.

“The work of our educators has become increasingly complex as they deal with all of the needs of our students, not just teaching the curriculum,” said Packard. “We need to have more mental health supports available and easily accessible in our communities, so that our students are healthy and able to learn to the best of their abilities.”

The Board will be reaching out to other leaders in local communities as well as organizations that provide mental health services to discuss ways they can work together to ensure youth in the community are getting the mental health services they need. 

Almost 150 of the parents and guardians who participated in the survey indicated that they would be interested in participating in focus groups to further discuss student mental health. NLPS is currently determining what that may look like.

“For that many parents to step forward and indicate they would be willing to give up their time to explore these issues with us further is significant,” said Packard. “We want to make sure that if we move forward, we have a process in place that honours their time and results in positive change for students.”

In the survey, parents indicated the topics they are most interested in learning more about are understanding anxiety, social media and digital addiction, understanding stress, and bullying/cyberbullying. Preferred formats are pre-recorded online sessions, in person sessions with other parents, access to recommended resources, and online webinars.

To assist parents and guardians in learning more about mental health and strategies they can use to support their children, NLPS will be offering a series of online sessions starting later this month. These sessions will be offered by the Successful Families, Successful Kids (SFSK) Wellness Coaches, a program provided through a grant from Alberta Health Services. 

“The first session will focus on stress caused by novelty experiences,” explained Ashley Currie, SFSK Coordinator. “This could be changing schools or taking tests or going to summer camp for the first time.”

Many students will be experiencing one or more of these situations over the next few months. The session will provide parents and guardians with strategies they can use to support children during these situations and transitions. Details about the session will be shared with parents once they have been finalized.

The division's focus on improving student mental health began in the 2019-2020 school year, following extensive consultations with stakeholders. In February 2020, each school outlined a plan to implement the strategies identified by the division to improve student mental health. Unfortunately, before many of those strategies could be implemented, in person classes were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

NLPS currently invests a significant amount of resources in mental health support and programming for students. Approximately $2 million of the funding the division receives for student supports is allocated to providing Student Advocacy Counsellors at each of the division’s schools. This is an initiative that has been in place for many years in NLPS. A recent review of the student mental health supports provided by NLPS showed that the division makes a much larger investment into mental health resources than most other school divisions of a similar size.

In addition to Student Advocacy Counsellors, NLPS students also have access to Wellness Coaches through the SFSK program, which is a Mental Health Capacity Building project funded by Alberta Health Service. A second grant from AHS provides  the division with funding to support the Community Helpers Program which provides middle and high school students with training to promote mental health in their schools and provide support to their peers.

The division’s current Mental Health and Wellness Plan is available on the division’s website.