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A new pilot project between the Saskatchewan Health Authority and the Prairie Valley School Division (PVSD) is connecting students in rural southeast Saskatchewan with expedited mental health support.

Lisa Plank is the nurse practitioner for the pilot project. Students who have been identified as having mild to moderate issues are referred to her for assessment within four weeks. She said previously some students were waiting months, if not years.

“Kids who have severe needs often are managed more quickly. It’s the kids with more mild to moderate needs that often wait a long time,” Plank said.

Students are able to self refer, but Plank said the referral typically comes from a school psychology team, support staff or their primary care provider.

“I would see [the student], do that initial assessment, determine what they may require and then can implement those things,” Plank explained. “If they don’t require any further services that might be where they stop. If they require more services than I can provide or we identify issues I can’t manage, then I refer them into the broader mental health system.”

Most assessments are done virtually.

Plank said the project is about streamlining mental health care for kids.

“A lot of these services existed, but in little pockets. [The project] is kind of streamline coordinating them and adding the nurse practitioner is new to kind of pull it all together,” she said.

The Prairie Valley School Division said families have been happy with the pilot project so far.

“In rural Saskatchewan it’s difficult to access services quickly and to ensure it’s the right service for the students that we have in our care,” Lori Anne Harkness, the learning superintendent with PVSD, said.

Harkness said funding for the pilot came from the SHA and the Ministry of Education COVID-19 funding.

MENTAL HEALTH AND THE PANDEMIC

Members of the PVSD staff say mental health support has always been necessary in schools, but the need has become more prominent since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Jennifer Kuntz, a registered social worker with the PVSD, said students have been experiencing more stress, anxiety and depression.

“There’s been a lot of disruption and a lot of stress for students and families during the pandemic. I think coming back has been a big adjustment for a lot of kids,” Kuntz said. “We have seen an increase or growth in our case numbers.”

She said being in a rural setting makes it difficult to access services at all times, but it was especially heightened during the pandemic.

“There was no support available. A lot of our community agencies, as well, had less ability to staff their buildings or provide supports to students or families the way they normally would have. There was even less access that way, which has increased wait times for community agencies too,” she said. She added that’s resulted in more pressure on schools.

Sacha Lingenfelter, a registered psychologist and mental health and addictions liaison with the PVSD, said even before the pandemic only 25 per cent of children experiencing mental health issues were able to access the services they needed.

“That meant there were a lot more addiction issues happening,” she said.

She said this new pilot project will help provide those supports more efficiently which could minimize long term problems.

“We know students with mental health issues are much more likely to develop addictions,” Lingenfelter said. “We also know that it’s really important for students, or people, to have quick access to those mental health supports so they have more positive outcomes.”

LOOKING AHEAD

Plank said moving forward, she would like to see a two-pronged approach to dealing with mental health care for students so there will be less of a need for services.

“We need to have consistent, coordinated services across systems, kind of breaking down some of those silos so there isn’t a gap between school and health,” Plank said. “That’s what we’re really trying to accomplish with this partnership is coordinating that to ensure streamlined care.”

Additionally, she said there should be more awareness and education programs for all children so they have a better idea about how to manage their mental health.

The PVSD said it would like to see more inter-ministerial partnerships going forward.

“To close the gaps for families, that rural services look like urban services and everybody has access, whether that’s in their communities or even within our schools,” Harkness said.

The pilot project runs until June. At that time it will be assessed by the SHA.

Plank said she hopes the funding will continue beyond that and would like to expand the project across Saskatchewan in the future.

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