Lack of mental health support for children is ‘heartbreaking,’ says school counsellor in plea for more resources

School children increasingly anxious and depressed and they’re not getting the support they need, according to a counsellor who spoke to the school board Tuesday.

“The kids are not all right,” said Katie DeReus, who counsels students ranging from kindergarteners to students to Grade 5. “I’m doing suicide risk assessments like you wouldn’t believe. We’re seeing huge jumps in school refusal.”

DeReus was speaking to the school board about the pending 2022-23 budget. On the subject of learning supports including school counsellors and education assistants, the budget describes the school district as providing: “incremental support as priorities are established and funding permits.”

That approach is “heartbreaking,” DeReus said.

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“Mental health of our children in schools should be the No. 1 priority,” she said.

The district recently established a mental health task force. However, the effort is “just in its infancy,” according to school board chair Michael Thomas.

“We agree that community mental health support . . . there’s a ways to go,” he said.

It would be “hugely beneficial” to put more counsellors into more schools, according to DeReus.

“I know that often we’re in schools two or three days a week,” she said. “Unfortunately – I don’t know if you’re familiar with six year olds or eight year oldss – but they tend to lack the self control to restrain their crises to the Tuesday that you’re on staff or the Thursday that you’re in the building.”

School counsellors also serve a role as one of the few providers of free, no-barrier counselling in B.C., DeReus added.

“To stretch us so thin is not sustainable for us as a human resource,” she said.

The district needs to focus on sustained support for both the daily and overall mental health of school children, according to DeReus.

“Are we looking away?” she asked.

Part of the blame lies with the province, according to district superintendent Patricia Gartland.

“The Ministry of Education is not funding this . . . mental health strategy in anything like a meaningful way,” she said.

The district is set to get an update “very soon” regarding an application to open a mental health hub through Foundry B.C., according to assistant superintendent Rob Zambrano.

Budget ‘balanced on the backs’ of teachers

The 2022/23 budget was also scrutinized by Coquitlam Teachers’ Association president Ken Christensen, who spoke to the board Tuesday.

“My main concerns is, as always, that budgets are balanced on the backs of my members,” he said.

The district plans to lay off the equivalent of 24 full-time teachers next year, a prospect that concerned Christensen.

“Many more teachers than usual resigned last year to seek opportunity elsewhere,” he said. “This is a collective loss for our students and families.”

Given the uncertainty of a host of factors, it’s difficult to predict that revenue will stabilize, according to the district’s secretary treasurer Mohammed Azim.

“We don’t know what the fall will hold . . . when it comes to the pandemic and any type of after-impacts,” Azim said.

The district will likely have a clearer picture after the school year begins, he added.

“It is much easier to add staffing in as the year goes on,” Thomas said during last week’s meeting. “Mid-year reductions are tremendously disruptive to the whole education system and to the students.”

The exhausting role of advocate

The budget calls for seven new education assistants. However, parent Shannon Leadbeater spoke to the board about just how acute that need is.

“I, like every other parent of a child with extra needs, am so frustrated by the amount of time and energy that I have to spend to advocate for my child’s needs,” she said.

Leadbeater noted other parents considering homeschooling, private school or online learning due to dissatisfaction with the public school system.

“There’s more need than there is funding,” Thomas acknowledged.

The school board is slated to approve the budget April 26.

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