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Panel recommends increased mental health supports in Nova Scotia schools

The panel tasked with examining the province's approaches to mental health and addictions wants more emphasis put on programs in the schools.
Health Minister Leo Glavine: 'We know the need for mental health and addictions support is growing across the province and we need to find new ways to reach those who need help.' (LOCAL XPRESS / File)

Help for all just down the hall.

That’s the way Dr. Stan Kutcher described a proposed directive to increase mental health supports for children and youth through their schools.

“Most young people are in school and they can access services very easily through the school setting,” Kutcher said at a morning news conference to announce four initial recommendations from the panel of experts struck last June to look into the province's approaches to mental health and addictions.

“The province already has an infrastructure in place to actually address that. To me, it seems like a no-brainer. Let’s take what already exists, let’s make it better and let’s provide the access to effective interventions for all young people.”

Kutcher, co-chairman of the eight-member panel and an expert in mental health training and policy at Dalhousie University and the IWK Health Centre, said data clearly shows that the earlier any mental health intervention occurs the better.

“We know that 70 per cent of all mental disorders can be diagnosed before age 25. They are in school at that time. It is a real opportunity for us to address intervention, promotion and early identification and care for your people at that time. Investing on the front end of the system such that a return on investment means we don’t have to invest so much at the back end.”

With that goal in mind, the province has committed $4.4 million to an overall federal-provincial investment of $10.4 million that will have all 383 schools in the province engaged in the SchoolsPlus program by the 2019-20 school year. The investment will also fund 51 additional health clinicians, SchoolPlus facilitators and community outreach workers.

The recommendation is to develop a standard-model mental health care by delivering the supports and services offered by youth health centres, SchoolsPlus and Early Development Centres. The services provided must be evidence- and needs-based, client-focused and youth-friendly, providing a full scope of needed supports and interventions.

“What we want to do is try to absolutely make sure that everywhere in this province, every young person who has needs can have them met equitably, efficiently and effectively,” Kutcher said.

Leo Glavine, the minister of health and wellness, said the SchoolsPlus program integrates educators, social agencies, primary-care providers and doctors who work with children at school and at home.

"We know the need for mental health and addictions support is growing across the province and we need to find new ways to reach those who need help," Glavine said.

kutcherStan Kutcher, co-chairman of the mental health panel, says mental health literature should be embedded into school curriculum. (DALHOUSIE UNIVERSITY)

The three other recommendations, which government has committed to address, are:

● Create a single web and mobile-based platform and 24-7 live answer, toll-free phone line to provide consistent access to mental health and addictions information, support and services provincewide and to ensure access to live counselling for youth;
● Ensure developmentally appropriate, evidence-based, consistent mental health and addictions curriculum at the Primary to Grade 6 level, as well as for students in grades 9 and 12;
● and ensure all mental health service providers receive evidence-based suicide risk assessment and suicide risk management training.

Starr Dobson, panel co-chairwoman and president and CEO of the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia, said the panel identified a number of places that provided information about mental health and addictions.

The panel recommended the 24-7 live phone line to make the system simpler to navigate.

“As a result of working at the Mental Health Foundation, we hear from people every day who are having trouble figuring out where to call and who to talk to,” Dobson said. “This is a recommendation that will point people in the right direction.”

She said consistent, standardized and universal were big themes for her and the panel.

“We wanted recommendations that could be felt from one end of the province to the other,” Dobson said. “We wanted recommendations so that my child in junior high school has access to the same things that a child in Yarmouth or Digby or Cape Breton has access to. We wanted to make sure that all mental health service providers were educated in suicide risk and assessment. We wanted to make sure that no matter where you live, no matter what your age, no matter what your demographic, you are going to have access to consistent mental health and addictions information.”

The province is leaning on best practices for suicide risk and intervention from around the country and the world, Kutcher said.

‘We will choose options that everybody can use consistently,” he said.

“Identifying people at risk and helping them manage people at risk to bring rates of suicide down.”

Kutcher said that the province’s education and health departments are setting a template for other jurisdictions regarding the positive effects of working closely across departments.

“The data show us that if we embed mental health literature into school curricula, we have a huge positive impact on the mental health status of young people in their literacy, and for their teachers,” he said.

He said the focus on school programs and health centres will indirectly affect wait times at the IWK and other facilities that provide mental health care.

“Health and mental health issues can’t be separated. They are one and the same thing; the brain does happen to be attached to the body. Providing easy access to effective care in school settings should be expected to decant those (wait) pressures that currently are at the IWK.”

Glavine said the potential for an upcoming election has nothing to do with the timing of the recommendations.

“My approach is to work up until the day the election is called whether it’s late ’17, early ’18 or whatever it may be. I am tasked with improving the health-care system.

“While I was wanting these recommendations to be a bit earlier, I wanted them done well, and as soon as they were announced, we could have them in place and worked on within a few months. That, in fact, is the goal here. If you want to draw the fact that this is potentially an election year, I see what’s in this document as going to help individual Nova Scotians and families in a much stronger way.”

The panel was appointed for a two-year term and is to report to the minister at least twice a year. Glavine said the panel will provide further recommendations in future and can expand on the proposals already submitted.


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