‘Shared mission’ pays off for students’ mental health

Bringing social supports into Edmonton schools removes stigma and helps vulnerable students and families build resilience, study shows.


Public health researcher Jessica Haight found that students and families at Edmonton All in for Youth schools with “wraparound” social supports offered on site have a high level of participation and report mental health benefits. (Photo: Supplied)

Vulnerable students and their families are seeing mental health benefits from a program that brings social service agencies right into Edmonton schools, according to recently published research from the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health.

All in for Youth follows a “wraparound” model of support that offers services including meals and snacks, success coaching and student mentoring, family counselling and out-of-school care within eight local elementary, junior high and high schools. 

According to the study, 42.7 per cent of 2,073 students enrolled at seven of the schools in the 2021-22 school year used at least one of the mental health services offered. Almost a quarter (24.5 per cent) of service users self-identified as Indigenous persons, close to one-tenth (9.5 per cent) had refugee status, 30.1 per cent were English language learners and 18.7 per cent had specialized learning needs.

“It was very powerful to hear just how much these services meant to the students and families,” says first author Jessica Haight, who interviewed and led focus groups with 51 students and 18 parents for her master’s thesis.

The students reported facing mental health challenges ranging from academic or social anxiety and depression to complex family circumstances, grief at the loss of a family member and even situations of abuse or neglect. Some experienced isolation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

“The mental health support workers were people they really felt comfortable talking to, and they felt like it lifted a weight off their shoulders when they were able to access those supports,” Haight says. “It helped them get through really tough times and gain skill sets that they’re able to use in their daily lives.”

The parents reported feeling more connected to their community, more resilient and capable as parents, and having a sense of relief that their child was receiving assistance.

“More effective by working together”

The All in for Youth program started in 2016 in five schools and has since expanded to eight schools within the Edmonton Public and Edmonton Catholic school boards, located in neighbourhoods that “experience significant socio-economic insecurity, such as high rates of poverty, mobility, under-resourced single-parent households, and complex home environments,” according to the study.

The program costs about $3 million per year, says Haight, and is supported by private and corporate fundraising as well as in-kind donations from the agencies. 

Haight says it is one of only a few examples of wraparound services in Canadian schools because of the level of collaboration required between services that are often offered by siloed sectors.

“Traditionally mental health, nutrition supports, mentoring, all those different supports don’t necessarily operate together, but they often have overlapping reach,” Haight explains. “The partners realized they would be more effective by working together.”

Haight says the model meets everyone’s needs: Students and families know where to find services easily, agencies have immediate access to clients, and schools don’t have to offer duplicate specialized services on site.

“It’s a great solution, but it does take a lot of different organizations that are operating separately to come together around a shared mission,” Haight says.

In this case, e4c provides meals and snacks to nearly all of the students. Big Brothers Big Sisters provides mentoring, after-school and school break programming to a large number of the students. United Way acts as the operating partner. The Family Centre provides classroom success coaching in both individual and group sessions, and also offers counselling for the whole family.

“Family support workers will actually go to the home and help families work on challenges that they might be going through,” Haight says. “They can help parents build their parenting skills. They can help families that are experiencing unmet needs connect to other resources in the community. And they just support the whole child and family to improve overall well-being and functioning.”

In the study, Haight notes that more than a million Canadian children and youth experience a mental disorder, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth aged 15 to 19. Yet it is estimated that only 20 per cent of young people get the treatment they need.

“It’s not a scary or shameful thing”

One of the strengths Haight identifies in the Edmonton program is that the schools have created a culture where it’s OK to ask for help.

“The presence of these workers in the schools really promotes mental health literacy among the other school staff and among the students,” Haight says. “There’s a lot less stigma so they’re more likely to feel comfortable reaching out to access services. It’s not a scary or shameful thing.”

Haight says two more research papers are in the works about the All in for Youth program, one focused on how the model works and another on the perspectives of school and agency staff.

Beyond that, she would also like to track high school completion rates for students who have gone through the program, noting that research on similar programs has shown a three-to-one return on investment in terms of graduates contributing through employment, improved productivity and less need for mental health services as adults.

“By investing in children when they’re young and providing them with coping skills and a comfort in reaching out when they need support, we are fostering resilience and promoting positive mental health and well-being among students.”

The All in for Youth research is supported by the Community-University Partnership for the Study of Children, Youth, and Families. Jessica Haight received support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Federation of University Women to complete this research.