A wellness line offered by local school boards is helping students who may be struggling with their mental health during the summer break.
Available for students in Grades 6-12 in both the Avon Maitland District School Board and Huron-Perth Catholic District School Board, the phone service is available Monday to Thursday (9 a.m. to 3 p.m.), and provides a continuum of care for students, who have either accessed help with mental health during the school year or are seeking help for the first time.
Heather Hirdes and Kaitie Westbrook, mental health leads for the public and Catholic school boards, respectively, have worked together extensively year-round, since both started their roles in 2021.
"Since Kaitie and I entered into the role we felt it was really important to have a consistent and collaborative approach across Perth County," Hirdes told StratfordToday. "We felt whether you are in the Catholic or public board, we want to make sure students have access to the same type and quality of service."
The public board offered the wellness line, which is staffed by mental health counsellors, in 2020 and 2021 but didn't get government funding last year. It is the first year for the wellness line in the Catholic board.
When students call, they can be connected with service providers in the community who have established relationships with the school boards.
Hirdes and Westbrook co-chair a school services advisory council that brings together more than 20 community groups, including CMHA and Huron Safe Homes for Youth. Agreements are set-up for one-on-one support, group support or educational presentations during the school year.
That gives everyone around the table "an opportunity to look at the gaps, needs, how we can collaborate and advocate at some bigger community tables," Hirdes said, adding that work during the school year sets the table for the wellness line.
"If a student calls in we already have those connections for referrals for the warm hand-off, and can extend it into summer because of those partnerships."
Westbrook said there is an increase in the number of students reaching out for help with their mental health. It has increased since the beginning of the pandemic, she said, when students were living in close quarters for extended periods and having limited face-to-face interaction with peers and meaningful adults in their lives.
"We absolutely continue to see a rise in mental health concerns."
Westbrook said her experience has told her that there are some students that do well in the summer and they need school-based mental health support from September to June and then they have that summer time as a break and don't require that service.
"There are others that would benefit from supportive check-ins or the opportunity to touch base if needed, which is what the wellness line provides."
Not all families can take their kids to a private therapist or community-based resources outside of school hours, Westbrook said. Being able to offer regulated mental health professionals in school buildings allows students to see someone at school and return to class.
"It's timely and effective and meets them where they are at."
Some will ask about continuity in service towards the end of the school year, Hirdes added, and what happens if they need to check-in.
"We have had some good success offering it and being able to support the families and our students. The biggest uptick is closer to the end of the summer when we are making that transition (back to school). Teachers are not back until later in August. So at least we can start some of those conversations in coordination with our community providers so we are ready to go (when school starts)."
Westbrook said Hirdes and her team laid the ground work for how the wellness line would work, and since they work together a lot during the school year, it was helpful to integrate best practices when the wellness line started being offered in the Catholic board.
"We do expresses our gratitude to Heather and her team, they are really the ones that developed this service model and shared the idea with us. Not only shared the idea but provided us with the resources so we would have the capacity to launch it in such a quick turnaround time."
You can reach the Huron-Perth CDSB wellness line at 226-921-0653, or the AMDSB wellness line at 226-921-5206.
The wellness line is not an emergency or crisis line. Students can leave a message after hours and get a call back the next business day. If you are in crisis, visit your nearest emergency room or call the Huron Perth Crisis Line at 1-888-829-7484.