The Alberta government will expand a pilot project that provides mental health supports to children in Red Deer schools, and develop a province-wide approach based on an evaluation of all current school-based mental health programs.
Over the past decade, through the ‘Creating Connections’ strategy for addiction and mental health, the province has built a successful partnership between the health system and schools. Alberta Health currently funds mental health programs in 193 schools, in addition to the ‘EMPATHY’ program in Red Deer.
Alberta Health will fund an expansion of EMPATHY in 2015-16, and evaluate all current programs. Based on the results of the evaluation, the department will work with Alberta Health Services to develop a province-wide approach to increase access to evidence-based mental health supports. The government will provide $5-6 million in the next fiscal year for the program.
“Our children and youth embody the promise of new ideas and energy to keep building our great province. By expanding addiction and mental health resources in schools, we are helping ensure our children have every chance to be happy and to succeed in whatever paths they choose to pursue in life,” said Jim Prentice, premier. “In an increasingly complex, fast-paced and competitive world, some of the most important supports that we can provide to our youth are those that build resiliency and those that promote good mental health.”
The EMPATHY program is a pilot project between Alberta Health Services’ Addiction and Mental Health Strategic Clinical Network, Red Deer Public Schools and Red Deer Primary Care Network that focuses on prevention, early identification and rapid treatment in elementary and junior high schools.
“Schools play an important role in building resiliency and positive mental health,” said Mark Jones, principal of Central Middle School. “The EMPATHY program has had a significant impact not only by identifying and providing needed support for students with potential mental health issues, but also by creating conversation and awareness among students, staff and families. Expanding school-based resources province-wide will help to ensure that all students have the supports they need to thrive.”
He added the EMPATHY program, which was initially branded as the Resiliency program in Red Deer, was established after there was a number of suicide-related deaths among young people in the community.
“As a school district we knew we could not address this issue alone. This was a community concern where we had to come together where we could involve all people and stakeholders who could make a difference,” said Jones. “That started the discussions with our community on how we could be proactive and provide early supports to students in need and help them create better outcomes in their lives.”
Meanwhile, Stephen Mandel, minister of health, said having the program go province-wide will be a benefit to Alberta students.
“We know from experience that school-based programs can play a huge role in supporting good mental health and in identifying problems early, so they can be addressed with the support of families and mental health professionals. Most mental health problems start when people are young, which is why these programs are so important,” he said. “I think this program, EMPATHY, is one of those programs that will be able to reach out to students and create an opportunity for them to understand the issues and to be able to work with the schools across the system. Today by expanding the EMPATHY program, this is a program that works and we need to find better and more effective ways in dealing with tremendous challenges that our children face today. It is a different world – one that as an adult to look at is scary – social media and the way we all interconnect is so different today. The challenges that we face and the pressures are so substantial.”