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Local trustees ‘concerned’ about students' mental health issues

'Everybody I know, even adults, never mind students and children, had some level of anxiety because of the situation,' said Barrie trustee in referencing pandemic
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Of the 5,189 students in the Simcoe County District School Board who consider themselves to have a disability or condition, 45 per cent report struggling with a mental-health issue.

More reports were provided to Simcoe County District School Board trustees last week during their program standing committee meeting on their first-ever student census completed in April 2021. Nearly 27,000 students (51 per cent) participated in the student census, which was completed confidentially.

Students in Kindergarten to Grade 6 had a parent/guardian participate in the census on their behalf, while students in Grades 7-12 participated in the census themselves.

As part of the census, all participants were asked questions about conditions or disabilities.

“I am concerned about the number of students identifying with mental health concerns, because as we all know, life does not get easier with age,” said Orillia/Ramara/Severn trustee Jodi Lloyd. “Stress is a normal thing we have in our life.”

“What are we doing, or what is the plan to move forward to help our students better cope with the challenges of school, life and work?” she asked.

Associate Director of Education Dawn Stephens said the board has been working with social workers and child and youth workers on programs that support stress reduction and resiliency.

“As far as full board plans, we are still working with our school mental health and wellness departments on what that will look like. We have professional development next year on this topic as well,” she said. “We have some work to do on overall resiliency.”

Stephens also said the topic of mental health is worked into the current health curriculum. She also noted that students or parent/guardians who filled out the census are self-diagnosing, so mental health concerns as noted through the census don’t necessarily mean a clinical diagnosis.

Twenty-three per cent of respondents to the student census considered themselves (or their child) to be a person with a disability or condition.

Overall, of the 5,189 participants who reported a condition or disability, the most common disabilities or conditions identified included mental health (45 per cent), learning (38 per cent), developmental (18 per cent), speech (14 per cent), seeing or visual (10 per cent), physical/mobility (nine per cent), hearing (four per cent) or other (one per cent).

Split up by panel, in the elementary panel of 3,290 students, the most commonly reported conditions or disabilities were learning (45 per cent), mental health (33 per cent) and developmental (24 per cent).

In the secondary panel of 1,899 students, the most commonly reported were mental health (68 per cent), learning (27 per cent) and seeing/visual (13 per cent).

As some of the questions had multiple select answer options, the totals may not add up to 100 per cent.

According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, a disability can be a condition that is visible or not visible. People can be born with a disability, it could be caused by an accident, or can develop as someone gets older.

A disability could include one or more of these conditions: physical, mental, learning, hearing, vision, epilepsy, and others.

The condition or disability census question included seven conditions or disabilities: developmental, hearing, learning, mental health, physical or mobility, seeing or visual, and speech.

Barrie trustee Beth Mouratidis pointed out that the 2021 census was taken to reflect the 2020 school year, in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m surprised the (mental health) number’s not higher,” she said. “Everything was shut down one day and open the next. Nobody knew what was going on, honestly.”

“Everybody I know, even adults, never mind students and children, had some level of anxiety because of the situation,” said Mouratidis.

Collingwood/Wasaga Beach trustee Tanya Snell agreed.

“If we had taken this census two years prior (to the pandemic), would it be the same?” she asked.

Barrie trustee David O’Brien asked questions about the nature of implementation of the census, and whether students who may have developmental or intellectual disabilities, such as autism, may have not participated due to barriers that would then, in turn, skew the data collected.

“If you have autism and are not very high functioning...where filling out a census was not something within their wheelhouse of abilities, are they being captured or are they falling off the map?” asked O’Brien.

Stephens said staff could go back and take a look at the data-collection process.

As defined in the Anti-Racism Act, public service organizations, which include Ontario school boards, are required and authorized to collect personal information related to programs, services and functions. This includes the collection of personal information related to Indigenous identity, race, religion, ethnic origin, gender identity and other demographic data.

According to the school board, throughout the 2021-2022 school year, other reports will be released periodically related to particular themes from the 2021 student census.

To read our story about the LGBTQ+ data collected through the 2021 student census, click here.

To read our story about languages data collected through the 2021 student census, click here.