Penticton schools tackling student anxiety

Two Penticton educators are challenging the common wisdom that 20 per cent of students are having troubles with basic skills.

Two Penticton educators are challenging the common wisdom that 20 per cent of students are having troubles with basic skills.

“It goes much more than not just being able to read or write,” said Terry Grady, Princess Margaret Secondary principal. “There are kids that are struggling with anxiety and mental health issues that are so overcoming to the kids that they are not able to wake up in the morning.”

For a number of years, the Okanagan Skaha School District has enjoyed a high success rate when it comes to getting students through to graduation, usually in the 80 per cent range, and higher than the provincial average. A single missed day can be the start of a cycle of anxiety and increasing missed school days, according to Grady.

“Now they are really behind the eight-ball,” he said, explaining that the concern at home and at school can increase the student’s anxiety level even more. “Sadly, many of the kids start turning to self-medication: drugs and alcohol.

“Before you know it, they are so far behind in school, it seems hopeless and then they just drop out.”

Sandra Richardson, vice-principal at Maggie, said the statistics are shocking, with 15 to 20 per cent of students struggling with a range of mental health issues: Stress, anxiety, and depression, all the way to the extreme of early onset of significant mental health issues.

Richardson said that according to some of her peers at elementary schools, signs of these problems can show as early as kindergarten. Statistics, however, show that it is usually around Grade 9, at 14 years old, where some of these issues start to show.

In a typical 30 student class, she said, you might have five students struggling. And of those five students only 1.5 will be getting professional support.

“It’s the topic that nobody wants to talk about,” said Grady, who says it is even hard to put a name to it around students.

“It’s got the word mental in it and there is stigma associated with that.”

It’s an issue that affects students across the board, according to Richardson. All economic levels, genders, even students capable of doing well academically.

“We can no longer deny that 20 per cent of our kids are hurting,” she said.

Richardson and Grady, with the support of Penticton Rotary Club, are developing a program to help, working with students, as well as teachers and parents to help the kids become more resilient.

Grady said they started school this year with a book reading, Fighting Invisible Tigers. We wanted to plant the seed in our staff of the importance of teaching kids how to take care of themselves and the importance of mental health and wellness.

The staff have read through the book, and are now working collaboratively to develop plans and methods and training staff to recognize when a student is struggling.

Kids struggle talking to adults about their feelings, so Grady said developing a peer mentoring program is another factor.

“We want to train kids to listen to what is going  on, and then recommend and direct them to people that can help them,” he said. “They need to be able to talk about mental wellness. Get rid of this stigma.”

The problem isn’t unique to Princess Margaret. Richardson said they have begun work on reaching out to their feeder schools with the eventual aim of taking the concept district-wide.

“We are not the only school. That 20 per cent is international. We recognize the need to help all our children and if something works in our school, perhaps it will help somewhere else.”