In an attempt to fill system gaps for students with mental illness, Rainbow District School Board trustees agreed to hire two new employees Jan. 27.
The school board will hire another social worker to work in the Manitoulin and Espanola areas, bringing the total number of social workers employed by the board up to five.
It will also hire a mental health nurse. This is the the first time the board has hired such an employee, although two mental health nurses hired by the North East Community Care Access Centre are already assigned to the board.
Rainbow will shell out an extra $180,000 a year for these two new employees.
The board's director of education, Norm Blaseg, said the extra social worker is needed because as things are right now, one of the board's social workers has to drive to Manitoulin Island, wasting time and money.
The new mental health nurse will fill a gap in the system in the form of helping students who have received addictions treatment transition back into the traditional school system.
“If we were in Southern Ontario, we would not be talking about this, because there is a service in most communities that would facilitate this,” Blaseg said, in reference to the mental health nurse position.
“We do not have that luxury in the north.”
Trustee Larry Killens — who represents the Manitoulin area — voted against both new employees not because he doesn't think they're needed, but because he feels the school board shouldn't be filling these gaps.
“That's not right,” he said. “We need to bring their feet to the fire.”
But while the board is waiting, kids are falling through the cracks, said Trustee Bob Clement, who represents the Espanola area.
“That's why we're doing what we're doing,” he said.
Hiring mental health professionals isn't the only way Rainbow is tackling the issue. The Spark program, in-school exercise classes to improve students' state of mind, is now offered at all of the board's elementary schools.
Mental health is talked about by school boards a lot more these days. The province is currently in the fourth year of a 10-year mental strategy to bolster mental health in schools, Blaseg said.
However, as in the case of Rainbow's future mental health nurse, provincial dollars aren't always available.
“I think there's much more awareness about mental health and how we respond to it than in years gone by,” Blaseg said.
“I think in years gone by we didn't give the attention that it deserved. We labelled it in other ways. If they were acting out, we would say that's a behavioural child and we'd isolate them or suspend them.
“The deeper we look into those situations, the more we find out there are some underlying issues, and a lot of it has to do with mental health.”