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Speaking up for our students’ rights: It’s time to reduce the student-to-school counsellor ratio


NOTE: This article has been published in the February 2024 GVTA Advocate Newsletter.


 

Ms. Lee hears the familiar sounds of desks toppling, doors slamming, and a group of students hurrying to the library. It’s only Wednesday, yet the teacher across the hall has had to evacuate their classroom for the second time this week. Meanwhile, Ms. Lee worries about how to support her student who is self-harming. The school counsellor won’t be in until Friday.


Our students are growing up during a mental health crisis:

  • Between 2006-2016, the proportion of Canadians aged 19 or younger who use mental health services increased 2.6% per year.1

  • Between 2002-2019, there has been a 139% increase in child and youth eating disorder hospitalizations.2

  • Since 2016, more than 13,000 people in BC have died to toxic drug overdose.3

  • In 2018, 17% of students in the BC Adolescent Health Survey reported they had seriously considered suicide in the past year.4


In 2021, a team of Canadian child and youth mental health experts stated:


“Even before the pandemic, children and youth in Canada were not faring well in large part because mental health has not been prioritized… The pandemic has put a spotlight on this problem and with this attention comes the need for action”.5


The need for action is growing. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been significant increases in child and youth alcohol consumption, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and suicidality.6 Researchers also warn of long-term effects such as emotional dysregulation, stress hypersensitivity, mental illness, substance use, and suicidality in the years ahead.7


Even though child and youth mental health needs are high, the accessibility of services remains unacceptably low. In 2017, the Mental Health Commission of Canada estimated only 1-in-5 children and youth with mental health disorders received the appropriate care.8 Can you imagine if it were cancer or diabetes? Researchers at Simon Fraser University have called this discrepancy between needs and accessibility of services both a violation of children’s rights and an “invisible crisis in children’s mental health”.9


Teachers see this invisible crisis every day. Simply put, because the needs are so high and the accessibility of services is so low, a large burden of care ends up in the school system. The impacts of mental illness and trauma on students include lower academic achievement and graduation rates, increased risk of severe mental illness and substance use in the long term, increased risk of physical health problems such as cancer and heart disease, and increased risk of homelessness and suicide.10,11


Other impacts are plainly visible to anyone who works in a school. These impacts include aggression, impulsiveness, inattentiveness, school avoidance, and self-harm. Meanwhile, teachers are fielding mental health crises they were never trained to manage. It is no wonder the 2022-2023 BCTF Membership Survey found many teachers are experiencing increased workload and stress, their physical and mental well-being has been affected, the teacher shortage is impacting students negatively, especially those with disabilities or diverse needs, and there are significant gaps in meeting students needs, particularly in the area of social-emotional development.12


If the purpose of the BC School System is to “Enable every learner to maximize their potential,” then the school system must prioritize student mental health. All people, not just young people, struggle to learn when they are sick or injured. Similarly, mental illness and trauma (a word which means “injury” or “wound” in Greek) negatively impact students’ learning and success. Every child must be guaranteed access to mental health care in order to protect their rights to survival, to the highest attainable standard of health, to accessible health care, and to an education directed towards the development of the whole child (see Articles 6, 24, and 29 in the Convention on the Rights of the Child).


Fortunately, teachers can address the mental health crisis and protect their students’ rights during bargaining, which is fast approaching in 2024-2025. Bargaining is an opportunity for teachers to improve students’ access to mental health care by adding language to our collective agreements on adequate school counsellor to student ratios.


School counsellors, who are also called “Teacher-Counsellors”, are both BC Certified Teachers and mental health professionals. In many districts, they are required to have a master’s degree in counselling psychology or a related discipline. Their unique blend of experience and training means they can provide counselling services, teach lessons, co-ordinate school-wide mental health promotion, liaise with community-based mental health services, conduct suicide risk assessments, and more.


Schools are the ideal place for child and youth mental health services since all school-aged children spend most of their week at school. With school counsellors, families do not have to travel for appointments, nobody has to miss work, stigma is reduced, and students can access care when they want by their own volition. Additionally, most of the mental health disorders affecting Canadians begin in childhood and adolescence13, which means school counsellors are excellently positioned to identify and intervene in the early stages of mental illness, preventing more severe and costly future problems.


School counsellors should be the most accessible mental health care service for children and youth in BC… but BC has far too few school counsellors due to inadequate and outdated ratios. Right now, the ratio in the Provincial Collective Agreement is 693 students to 1 school counsellor. This far exceeds the 250-to-1 ratio which was endorsed and recommended by the BCTF in May 2022.14


Research evidence also shows that lower ratios are associated with better outcomes, including improved academic achievement, attendance, disciplinary, graduation, and post-secondary application rates.15 Lower ratios are also associated with reduced risk of burnout and increased job satisfaction for school counsellors16: factors which cannot be overlooked given the ongoing challenges with recruitment and retention.



BC has a despairingly poor ratio when compared to other regions. For instance, 49 out of 50 American States have a better (i.e. lower) ratio than BC.17 In Europe, there are nations such as Croatia (250-to-1), Malta (300-to-1), and Bulgaria (500-to-1) which maintain much lower ratios18 despite having considerably lower GDP per capita than BC.


Economically, the decision is straightforward. Studies on the cost effectiveness of programs designed to improve mental health show they produce high returns on investment ranging from $2 to $31 for every $1 spent in the long-term.19 Meanwhile, child mental illness costs the Canadian economy more than $15 Billion per year.20 We literally cannot afford to maintain the status quo.


By bargaining for a human-rights based, evidence-based ratio, teachers could improve access to mental health care for more than 500,000 students in the BC School System. Can you imagine the potential positive impact for students, families, teachers, schools, communities, and society? In BC, the collective voice of teachers has always spoken up for our students’ rights. This year and next, let us bargain for every child’s right to accessible mental health care.



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