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Schools lack access to mental-health professionals, report says

While more and more children are being diagnosed with mental-health problems and learning disabilities, schools are struggling to gain access to mental-health professionals with the expertise to address their students' learning needs, according to a report released Monday by a parent advocacy group.

The report, which was compiled by People for Education and based on a survey of Ontario principals, found that less than half of the province's secondary schools have regular access to psychologists and youth workers.

"Maybe it's not necessarily your kid, but if we want our schools to be thriving happy places where kids can work and learn, it's really important that we deal with mental health," said Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education and an author of the report. "If you have a school where some kids can function and others can't, nobody can learn easily."

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The report showed a 38-per-cent increase in the number of Grade 6 students receiving special education support over the past five years, and that the incidence rate of mental-health disorders has climbed to include between 15 and 21 per cent of students.

The numbers echo a 2009 report by the Canadian Pediatric Society that found that children's mental-health services are already over-extended and that the incidence of mental-health problems is expected to grow 50 per cent by 2020.

While some urban areas showed a slight recent improvement in school-based access to mental-health professionals, services remain scarce in the northern parts of province where one-third of schools have no access to a school psychologist.

"The discrepancy between the GTA and the north is scary," said Gordon Floyd, president and CEO of Children's Mental Health Ontario.

An easy way to promote access in both rural and urban areas is to build co-operative relationships between school boards and community-based services, according to Ms. Kidder, because schools tend to provide mostly diagnostic services while community groups focus on treatments.

"We're not saying schools should be the providers of every single support service, but they should provide the link for where parents can go," said Ms. Kidder.

An example of this kind of symbiosis exists in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., where the school boards have partnered with Algoma Family Services to put addiction counsellors in every high school. At one school for at-risk youth, the community group and the board split the cost of a mental-health co-ordinator and found that within months, suspension rates went down, while attendance went up.

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"It's really cool because it works like a charm and we're getting a lot of really good results," said Russ Larocque, director of clinical services for Algoma Family Services.

The report was based on survey answers from principals at 922 elementary and secondary schools across the province, representing just under 2 million students, or about 20 per cent of the student population.

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