Principals sound the alarm about students’ mental health
New data reveal gaps in supports for students and staff
For immediate release
TORONTO (February 27, 2023) – Ontario’s principals say their schools are not sufficiently supported to help students who are continuing to struggle with the aftereffects of the pandemic. They report increased behavioural issues, students having difficulties with self-regulation, and a range of unaddressed mental health challenges.
New data from People for Education’s 2022-23 Annual Ontario School Survey – which includes survey responses from 1,044 schools across all of Ontario’s 72 publicly funded boards – also reveal that the percentage of schools with no access to psychologists has doubled in the last ten years, and that geography plays a significant role in schools’ access to supports like social workers, psychologists, and child and youth workers.
PFE data on student mental health align with reports from across the country
Recent data from Statistics Canada show an overall decline across the country in the mental health of young people aged 12 to 17. In 2019, 73% of 12 to 17-year-olds described their mental health as very good or excellent, but by 2022, that number had declined to 61%. CAMH has also raised concerns – 59% of Ontario students responding to CAMH surveys said that the pandemic has made them feel depressed about the future, and 39% reported that it has made their mental health worse.
Mental health and well-being a top challenge for schools
At the beginning of the pandemic, most of the focus in Ontario schools was on COVID-19 safety and the logistics of remote learning. This year, principals are reporting mental health and well-being support are their top priority.
Among the findings from the 2022-23 Annual Ontario School Survey:
- 91% of schools report needing some or a lot of support for students’ mental health and well-being.
- Only 9% of schools report they have regularly scheduled access to a mental health/addiction specialist or nurse, and 46% of schools report no access at all.
- 28% of elementary and secondary schools report they have no access to a psychologist – either virtually or in-person – nearly double the percentage with no access in 2011.
- 82% of schools report needing support staff such as educational assistants, administrators, and custodians.
- Only 56% of elementary and 64% of secondary schools reported collaborating with local mental health organizations.
The data show that rural schools are less likely to have access to psychologists, social workers, and mental health specialists, compared to schools in urban areas.
Staff burnout leads to downward spiral
Principals also raised serious concerns about the mental health and well-being of their staff. In many of their responses they said that both teaching and support staff were experiencing burnout, which was leading to an increase in staff mental health issues, then in turn led to increased absenteeism and increased pressure among remaining staff.
In some cases, principals report they have funding for mental health workers, but none are available in their communities.
In their responses, principals called on the Ministry of Education to fund sufficient staff, increase access to family and community supports, and recognize the depth of the impact of the pandemic on school communities.
People for Education is recommending the establishment of a cross-sector Health and Education Task Force to provide advice on long-term, integrated strategies to support students and staff.
Principals and vice-principals continue to be concerned about the mental health and well-being of our students, post-pandemic. While more support is needed, we know there are not enough school mental health professionals to meet the growing need. One solution could be for the government to provide financial support and fast-tracking of mental health workers in colleges and universities, who would then move into the education sector following their course completion. Another solution is for schools to have better access to community-based mental health staff and resources who could assist these students.
Patsy Agard, President, Ontario Principals’ Councils
A Health and Education Task Force could provide advice on policies, programs, coordination of services, and funding to address the currently increasing demands for mental health and well-being supports across Ontario’s publicly funded schools.
Annie Kidder, Executive Director, People for Education
We keep hearing about the mental health of students; however, where are the supports? There has not been an increase in the number of Child and Youth Workers, or social workers assigned to schools – in some cases, the youth workers are shared between two secondary schools and are not in their schools every day – you can’t build a sense of community and trust with students if you aren’t in the building.
Secondary school principal, GTA
Staff are expected to deliver mental health and well-being supports, but they themselves are in need of mental health and well-being supports. The workload of the past two+ years has only increased (and no indication of it levelling out). They are overloaded and overworked.
Elementary school principal, Eastern Ontario
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