Sask. auditor's report gives recommendations amid rising depression in high school students

Tara Clemett, Saskatchewan's provincial auditor, presents the first volume of her 2024 report on Wednesday.  (Kirk Fraser/CBC - image credit)
Tara Clemett, Saskatchewan's provincial auditor, presents the first volume of her 2024 report on Wednesday. (Kirk Fraser/CBC - image credit)

Saskatchewan's provincial auditor's latest report includes a look at how one school division is trying to deal with an apparent rise in student anxiety and depression.

Saskatchewan's provincial auditor Tara Clemett released Volume 1 of her annual report on Wednesday.

One section focuses on the Living Sky School Division, which administrates 28 schools in 15 communities, including North Battleford, Unity and Pelican Lake First Nation.

The auditor's report references a recent survey done in the division in which 32 per cent of students from grades 7 to 12 who responded reported moderate to high levels of anxiety and depression in 2022-23, up from 21 per cent in 2015-16. The Canadian average is 26 per cent, the report says.

The report says there are 12 combined counsellors working at 13 high schools.

"Counsellor caseloads vary significantly between counsellors. We found one school counselor responsible for 820 students at three high schools who could experience potential mental health concerns," Clemett said at a news conference Wednesday.

Meanwhile, another counsellor has a caseload of 89 students. Two part-time and two full-time counsellors shared the caseload of 97 students.

"It isn't necessarily about getting more counsellors, but it might be about relocating them. Like why do you have one councillor having to take care of three high schools when you maybe have four counsellors working in another high school?" she said.

Tamara Hinz, a child psychiatrist in Saskatoon, said those numbers echo her own experience with youth during the pandemic and afterward.

"My heart really goes out to those counsellors because as a child psychiatrist, our numbers are also nowhere near where they need to be. And so we're also dealing with these incredibly big caseloads or very long waits to get in to access the care that kids need," Hinz said.

Hinz said people on the frontlines of Saskatchewan's child psychiatric community knew this was a “looming crisis” bound to happen, because of challenges with recruitment and a pending retirement.
Hinz said people on the frontlines of Saskatchewan's child psychiatric community knew this was a “looming crisis” bound to happen, because of challenges with recruitment and a pending retirement.

Child psychiatrist Tamara Hinz says psychiatrists also have 'incredibly big caseloads' and children can face up to two years on a wait list. (Jen Talloden Photography)

She said a child has to wait almost two years to see a psychiatrist.

"It feels very awful to be in a place where you know that there's need that you're not meeting. Like for a child to go through one or two entire grades suffering with depression or ADHD or a combination of mental health symptoms before they can access that help, it's unacceptable."

Hinz said there are 400 to 500 kids on the waiting list to see a psychiatrist.

Rebecca Rackow from the Canadian Mental Health Association's Saskatchewan division said she was not surprised that the survey found a rise in anxiety and depression among students.

"When people don't notice that [students] are struggling, it looks like they don't matter or it looks like they're not important," Rackow said.

Opposition NDP MLA Trent Wotherspoon called the student to counsellor ratios unacceptable.

"It's absolutely wrong that we'd have these sorts of ratios, 800 and some students to one counsellor," Wotherspoon said. "Sadly we know that's not unique to that division. This is the reality in schools and divisions right across Saskatchewan," he said.

The audit also found that there was insufficient documentation of formal risk assessments and safety plans for students who are at risk of suicide. Clemett said that increases the risk of suicide.

"People can mask those things [suicidal ideations] if they feel like they're not getting the help they need. And so doing that risk assessment helps take that mask off," Rackow said.

Clemett noted that the school division has had eight suicides since 2018, with three of them having occurred last year.

Living Sky also doesn't track referrals made to outside agencies like addiction counselors or the Saskatchewan Health Authority, which can make it difficult for counsellors to know if students received timely, additional support.

The auditor's report made several recommendations to the division, including analyzing caseloads, completing standardized risk assessments and preparing safety plans for students showing signs of suicide, tracking outside referrals and creating mental health incident reports.

Clemett said other school divisions should also take note fo the recommendations.

In a statement, Living Sky director of education Brenda Vickers said the division received the recommendations in April and has begun addressing several items mentioned in the audit.

"We are very proud of the counselling team we have in place. They are highly trained individuals dedicated to serving our students," Vickers said.