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The Changing Face of Mental Health in Alberta Schools

by Mike Sullivan Cubic Health | December 17 2015 | 2 Comments

I’m not a teacher or support staff employee. While I can try to relate to what the education sector workplace might be like, I can’t even fathom the complications of population that includes children as young as 4 or 5 years old, to children hitting puberty, to teenagers who are beginning to shape their views of the world. Add to this mix the complications of living in a digital age that seems to speed up the maturation of youth by making content of any type available on-demand in the palm of their hands—and I absolutely cannot appreciate the unique challenges of the typical education sector workplace.

What I can share is some perspective about the changing face of health challenges for not only specific students or a given classroom, but on young Albertans in the overall education sector workplace. That this impacts you as an employee in this field is certain.


The State of Student Mental Health

Cubic Health has recently partnered with ASEBP to look at the health issues impacting young Albertans, and how these issues are evolving. Our findings around the prevalence of depression in students was eye opening. After looking at a representative sample of over 13,000 young Albertans between the ages of 6 – 19 over a 36-month period, it became clear that depression in students has, and will continue to have, a significant impact on the sector now and in the coming years.

Our findings indicated definitively that the overall number of children being treated for depression increased between 2012 and 2014, most especially in children between the ages of 13-19.

  • 7% of children between the ages of 13 – 16 are actively being treated for depression—a 29% increase since 2012.
  • 4% of children between the ages of 16 – 19 are actively being treated for depression—a 24% increase since 2012.

Of course all depressive conditions are not created equally. There is a subset of depression referred to as Treatment-Resistant Depression (TRD)—essentially more challenging cases that do not adequately respond to traditional antidepressant therapy. Our study results were alarming, indicating that:

  • TRD cases in those aged 6 – 13 increased by 80% since 2012.
  • TRD cases in those aged 13 – 16 increased by 19% since 2012.
  • TRD cases in those aged 16 – 19 increased by 36% since 2012.

These figures are remarkable when we consider that antidepressant therapy is generally avoided at all costs in children under the age of 18. Therefore, these are presumably cases where the risks of not treating the condition with medication therapy are greater than starting antidepressant therapy.


The Path Forward

What does this mean for your and education sector employees’ wellness as you deal with student health issues that are growing in complexity every year? Obviously this is a larger issue than we’re able to resolve in a blog but, as Shandy Reed pointed out in an earlier blog, you eat an elephant one bite at a time. And there’s no time like the present to get started. A few things to keep in mind:

  1. Knowledge is power. Armed with this information, there can be no denying that this is a growing issue that will certainly affect you and your workplace.
  2. Manage what you can. As a wellness champion, your goal is to promote workplace wellness among your colleagues. Healthy employees will be far better equipped to support and model positive behaviour to students—the impact of trickle-down effect (for both positive and negative behaviours) cannot be underestimated.
  3. Focus on mental health. The increases in incidences of depression is not limited to students. If your wellness committee is considering areas to focus on, you won’t go wrong by putting your energies here. Check out this forum post for ideas on mental health awareness activities and leave your own comments if you’ve undertaken an initiative in the past.
  4. Small changes reap big rewards. There is no place that is too small to start. Even something as simple as regularly sharing mental health self-care tips at a staff meeting, starting a book or walking club can be the impetus for big, positive changes for your colleagues. The Canadian Mental Health Association has a number of fantastic ideas that can help you either start thinking about or move your existing workplace mental health programs along.

It’s a safe bet that workplace mental health is either on your radar or will be in the very near future. Learning more about how increasing mental health issues faced by the children in your schools affect staff, and having a plan to implement incremental, positive changes that support staff mental health are both outstanding places to start.

So tell me, has anyone been part of a successful campaign to bring awareness to the issue of mental health in your school community? What was your approach? Did you have a go-to resource to help generate ideas? Share what you learned with your friends in The Sandbox!

Mike Sullivan

As president and co-founder of Cubic Health—a leader in benefit plan sustainability management—Mike uses detailed analytics and his background in pharmacy to design more cost effective and robust benefit plans for his clients. Despite his crippling fear of all forms of dance, 'Sully,' as he is quite originally called, is the one you want on the floor when you have a truckload of benefit plan usage data to analyze. Because you never really know when that skill will come in handy.

Matthew M. Alberta Health Services - | December 23 2015 12:05 PM

Great post Mike! I appreciate the  recent data you have presented. I think it is important to expand on a small but very important point you make in your blog - "focus on mental health". There is a major misconception in our society that mental health and mental illness are the same. This isn't overly surprising when you begin to notice how most people who talk about mental health  are really talking about mental illness. An example might include how the places we go to seek treatment for mental illnesses are often called "mental health clinics". The fact though is that Mental health and illness don't lie along a continuum; they are two entirely separate concepts. The reality is that everyone has mental health (that can be improved), but not everyone has a mental illness/issue/problem. 

To tie this back into your point - "focus on mental health". I wonder how many sandblog readers would truly know what it looks like to "focus on mental health"? It is all too common that the discussion shifts to mental illnesses/issues/problems. Unfortunately, these conversations really don't get us any closer to improving mental health for all. Everyone has a role to play to support mental health, and by "focusing on mental health", we can support everyone to be mentally healthy, including those that suffer from mental illnesses.

In schools, workplaces, etc, this starts with creating a positive social and physical enviornment, and implementing practices that make people feel welcome, cared for, respected and safe. I am pleased to see that more resources are being created all the time in the education system to support this approach. Some recent examples include Mental Health Matters and Bill 10 Amendments to Alberta's School Act requiring all schools to create an environment that is welcoming, caring, respectful and safe for all staff and students.

Thank you for raising awareness of this important topic and providing an opportunity for me to expand on something that I am passionate about.

Lorna M. Alberta Health Services - | January 8 2016 12:48 PM

A great blog Mike!  And great comments from Matt.  I agree that we do need to focus on Mental Health... our own and each others.  Creating a positive school environments is important and many schools are doing a good job of this.  Students are being introduced to skills and techniques related to wellness (including mental wellness)... but how / when do we focus on the staff?

For my daughter's 7th birthday, we did a "bucket filling" scavenger hunt at her school for the staff (the staff have done "bucket filling" with the students for a number of years so we turned it around).  We left positive quotes in mail slots, placed gifts of hand lotion or candles on teachers' desks, and wrote uplifting messages on the staff bathroom mirrors (with permission from the custodian).  It's amazing how much it was appreciated - even though we tried to do it anonymously - the vice principal caught us and told us that we had "filled his bucket" (and he didn't know that we were calling it a bucket filling scavenger hunt).

We also try to take time before school starts in the fall to leave positive messages for school staff as they return to work.  Again we try to do this anonymously but we keep getting busted... and thanked.  I've already been told that we need to keep coming back even after our children leave the school!

I think that Random Acts of Kindness can make a difference but we need to do so much more.  We need to know our neighbours and the names of the children that live in our communities.  We need to spend more time outside (and less time with technology).  We need to be connected to people.  I also believe that we need to have our own wellness plans that adress our physical, emotional, spiritual needs (etc.).  The stats are scary... I believe that we can turn them around!