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Ontario students are struggling to get access to the mental health support they need, a recent survey of school principals shows.

People for Education, a public education non-profit organization, did its annual survey of 1,044 principals across 72 publicly funded Ontario school boards. It found nearly half of the schools reported no access to mental health, addiction specialists or nurses and 28 per cent of elementary and secondary schools reported no access to a psychologist — virtually or in-person. Nearly all schools reported needing some or more support when it came to students’ mental health.

Principals reported “increased behavioural issues, kids struggling with self-regulation, and kids struggling with being able to stay mentally healthy,” said Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education. The union representing school support staff like social workers and youth counsellors agreed the situation is dire.

“There’s a mental health crisis right now,” said Solange Scott, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation Professional Student Services Personnel bargaining unit for Toronto. “We're coming out of the pandemic, and the support that the students need is overwhelming.”

In an email to Canada’s National Observer, a spokesperson for Ontario’s education minister said the government has invested $130 million into community mental health services for children and youth and funded the hiring of about 7,000 additional education, social and child and youth workers in Ontario schools.

Scott said in Toronto, student support workers are “overworked” as they try to meet a high demand for student mental health services. Some social workers in Toronto schools, Scott said, have caseloads of up to 100 students, making it difficult for each worker to meet students’ needs.

Student support workers across the Greater Toronto Area face similar challenges. Daniela Merenda, president of the union that represents school support workers in Peel, said some schools have access to one social worker, one speech and language pathologist and one psychological educational consultant one day per week.

“It is quite severe. The needs of students are great,” Merenda said. “(Support workers) are stretched, and we need more social workers, more psychology staff and … speech and language staff to lessen the wait times for students.”

Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, says Ontario children lack access to mental health support. Photo supplied by Annie Kidder

Kidder said the staff shortage can have a profound effect on school support staff.

Ontario school students struggling with mental health, new survey finds. #onpoli #schools #MentalHealth

“Staff were trying to deal with those high needs, but there wasn't sufficient staff. In some cases, this was causing staff to also become more and more stressed,” Kidder said. “One principal described it as a downward spiral.”

People for Education’s survey is just the latest showing young Canadians’ mental health is worsening. In a report in February, Toronto Public Health said before the pandemic, less than half of students rated their own mental health as good or excellent. In its report, Toronto Public Health said it found 43 per cent of people in Toronto found it difficult to access mental health support.

“Students are literally being pushed through the cracks, and that doesn't need to happen,” Scott said. “The students are suffering.”

Isaac Phan Nay / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism

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