SD54 takes lead on mental health literacy for staff and students

The school district’s part-time social emotional helping teacher has sown benefits after three years

When it comes to mental health training, the Bulkley Valley School District 54 (SD54) wants to make sure its staff are up to date with the latest and greatest information.

In an interview with The Interior News, former district principal for learning services Cathy Van Der Mark said mental health has been on SD54’s radar for some time now.

It was during her time in that role that Van Der Mark said she adopted a mental wellness portfolio for the district.

She said the decision was a response to a constant desire within the district for social emotional learning support for students and staff alike.

READ MORE: New SD54 superintendent named

However Van Der Mark also said they wanted to find a way to do this without changing current counselling services.

Not exactly an easy task, but eventually Van Der Mark said her request for the district to employ a part-time social emotional helping teacher (SEHT) was approved three years ago.

She said the changes the district saw with regard to staff’s ability to pinpoint students requiring one-on-one attention or other forms of counseling services as a result of this new hire was significant.

Another element of the district’s attitude toward training staff on mental health practices was ensuring the implementation of these practices was supported by the districts SEHT.

“So by putting a social emotional helping teacher in place we were able to support students in the social emotional learning that was now part of the curriculum as well as supporting the teachers in the implementation of that.

“It allowed us to support students, allowed us to support teachers and allowed us to enhance the counseling services that we already had in place, which was our goal.”

The success of the initiative led to the district approval to bring the SEHT to a total of four days a week — nearly full time.

These hours continued into 2018, with Van Der Mark noting the district began to shift its focus to communication between parents and the schools as part of improving its students’ mental health.

“We had an expansion of a focus to make sure that we were providing more communication with and for parents because we wanted to make sure that this was really a holistic approach to social emotional learning.”

This included three training sessions in the spring that parents could attend and learn about the mental health initiatives the district is taking.

READ MORE: SD54 projects decrease in 2019-2020 enrolment

Beyond the district’s SEHT, however, Van Der Mark said SD54 aims to keep its school counsellors up to date in the industry standard pertaining to health literacy.

“We had one of our elementary school counselors and one of our high school counselors attend the mental health literacy training at UBC,” said Van Der Mark, noting the three-day program is among the industry standard for mental health literacy training within the country.

She said another aspect of the district’s approach toward mental health literacy in its staff is professional development days.

Last year, for example, the district had 47 staff members trained in mental health literacy over two days.

As part of that approach, the district will also offer two additional training days in the upcoming school year.

In the end, Van Der Mark said the main goal of the numerous approaches towards mental health literacy SD54 has taken is education of staff members on the issues so they can be better resources, both in identifying students who might need additional counselling or one-on-one assistance and in potentially applying that assistance themselves (or being able to determine the appropriate next steps with regard to referring a student to some sort of resource).

“If they have a better understanding of the mental health issues in that spectrum then they can build their own knowledge around whether or not this is something that needs to be referred out or it’s something that, as a classroom teacher, that I can be proactive and be supportive.”

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