Ontario public schools need support for youth mental health after pandemic: survey

By Jordan Omstead

Hundreds of Ontario principals say they need more help to support students’ mental health, a survey reported Monday as it exposed inequities in access to those supports across the province. 

Nonpartisan advocacy group People for Education’s 2022-23 annual survey of more than 1,000 Ontario schools revealed 91 per cent needed support for students’ mental health and well-being. 

“Principals and vice-principals continue to be concerned about the mental health and well-being of our students, post-pandemic,” Patsy Agard, president of the Ontario Principals’ Council, wrote in a statement accompanying the survey’s release.

While the pandemic has underscored demand for youth mental health support, the annual survey indicated access to some of those supports has dropped.

The survey, covering schools across all of Ontario’s publicly funded boards, reported the number of schools with no access to a psychologist had nearly doubled over the past decade, up to 28 per cent of elementary schools and 29 per cent of secondary schools.

Part of the problem, Agard said, is there are not enough mental health professionals to meet growing demand. She said the government could look to fast-track mental health workers in post-secondary programs and improve school access to community-based mental health staff and resources.

In some cases, principals reported they had funding for mental health workers, but none were available, People for Education said. 

The non-partisan group wants the government to establish a task force to provide advice on long-term strategies to support students and staff. 

“A Health and Education Task Force could provide advice on policies, programs, co-ordination of services, and funding to address the currently increasing demands for mental health and well-being supports across Ontario’s publicly funded schools,” executive director Annie Kidder wrote in a statement. 

The school survey indicated rural regions were less likely to have access to a mental health professional compared with urban areas, though discrepancies varied depending on the type of professional.

About 71 per cent of schools in the Greater Toronto Area, for example, had regularly scheduled access to an in-person social worker, compared with 49 per cent of schools in Ontario’s northern region, according to the survey. 

In response to the survey, a spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the government has increased funding for mental health, hired more social workers and would continue to take action to support Ontario students. 

The survey was released Monday against the backdrop of a number of recent reports finding youth mental health worsened during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Statistics Canada noted fewer young people reported excellent mental health and Toronto Public Health has pointed to an increase in self-harm-related emergency department visits. 

Across Ontario, there are some 28,000 children waiting for community-based mental health treatment. 

Principals surveyed by People for Education also raised concerns about staff mental health, People for Education said. The responses indicated burnout was leading to increased absenteeism and fuelling pressures on remaining staff.