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49 mental health counsellor jobs to be created in territory

Andrea Brown, from the NWT Health and Social Services Authority speaks at an information session about the expanded Child and Youth Care Counsellor program, at Ecole St. Joseph in Yellowknife on Tuesday. Blair McBride/NNSL photos

The GNWT is expanding to Yellowknife its Child and Youth Care Counsellor (CYCC) program to provide more mental health supports for students and families across the territory.

A total of 49 new counsellor positions have been created in the territory for the program, as was explained to an information session of about three dozen parents and education officials on Tuesday at St. Joseph school in Yellowknife.

The aim of the expansion is to “enhance (mental health supports) by adding more,” as Andrea Brown, territorial manager for mental health and addictions services with the NWT Health and Social Services Authority (NWTHSSA) told the meeting.

Andrea Brown, from the NWT Health and Social Services Authority speaks at an information session about the expanded Child and Youth Care Counsellor program, at Ecole St. Joseph in Yellowknife on Tuesday.
Blair McBride/NNSL photos

“We don't always have enough in our system to be able to support the needs of the schools,” she said.

The need for more mental health support was identified through a survey of 130 youth across the territory seeking their feedback on mental wellness.

“For a number of our students across the territory we have a legacy of residential schooling and have large trauma impacts and those mental health impacts affect their ability to learn,” said Gillian Dawe-Taylor, director of health, wellness and student support with Department of Education, Employment and Culture (ECE), who was also at the meeting.

That need was also identified through what Brown called “behind-the-scenes work” of collaboration and planning between the NWTHSSA and ECE.

The expanded CYCC program will be implemented in the North Slave region, including Yellowknife in 2020-2021 and in the South Slave in 2021-2022. It has already been active in the Dehcho and Tlicho regions since 2018, and in the Sahtu and Beaufort-Delta regions since last year.

But the initiatives of 2018 hadn't been fully implemented by the time the Office of the Auditor General did its audit, according to its report on education in the NWT, published on Feb. 6.

Recruiting is ongoing for most of the 49 positions, and most will be in the North and South Slave regions, Lisa Giovanetto, NWTHSSA spokesperson told Yellowknifer.

One of the major changes that the CYCC program will bring to schools in Yellowknife is that the counsellors and child and youth counsellor positions will be offered as part of a regular job competition, Brown said. That entails some current counsellors applying for their own jobs.

The services will be offered year round and there will be “offices in the communities that allow for that. Families can come for counselling either inside or outside of the school depending on what they prefer,” said Dawe-Taylor.

Another change is that the new roles will be managed by the NWTHSSA and not the YK1 or Catholic school boards as they currently are.

The NTHSSA will do the hiring and supervising of the employees, who will have “specific qualifications and meet national health and social services industry standards. This will ensure all counsellors in the system will be providing a consistent and high quality level of care to students across the NWT,” Giovanetto said.

The management shift “means the employees will be reporting up to a team of trained industry professionals that can provide guidance, and support them through more difficult scenarios. Previously the guidance counsellors did not have access to this network of trained professionals to work with. These changes should lead to more easy referrals within the system and enhanced continuity for children and families who access these services.”

Two prominent educators who spoke with Yellowknifer support the expansion.

Erin Currie, chair of the board of trustees of Yellowknife Catholic Schools said she's happy to welcome the new counsellors.

“The implementation of Child and Youth Care Counsellors is an important initiative for our students. We have seen an alarming decrease in mental wellness in young people, and suicide rates are very high in the North. It will be a great benefit to have counsellors available for our students all year round.”

Currie hopes the current counsellors can stay in their positions, since Brown acknowledged that it's not guaranteed all counsellors will remain in their roles although she said the goal is to minimize disruption and work with schools so that all needs are met.

Fraser Oliver, president of the NWT Teachers Association said that having people trained in mental care health will help advance positive outcomes for the students.

“Not only will they be working with the school and helping students adapt to regular classroom settings, but one of the key things i like about it is that they'll be working with the families. They'll be able to work with the parents and school and community to address the the needs of the child. I think only good things can come out of that.”

However, he pointed out some potential shortcomings of the program, such as counsellors who might lose their jobs or be re-assigned, or other changes to their positions including seniority.

He also addressed the question of who the counsellors will be accountable to.

“There might need to be some tweaks because they're NWT health employees and not school employees,” he said.

“I think the issue is about giving supports. The counsellor could let me know that this person is going through a difficult time and these are some strategies I could use as a teacher. That's exactly what I need. I don't need to know the details of why someone is struggling.”

A larger issue for Oliver is attracting and retaining the mental health counsellors.

“In one school in the Dehcho region they couldn't hire one of the mental health counsellors for several months and it put pressure on the administration. And if there's only one in a regional centre and that person goes on vacation, who steps up?”

“There are housing concerns in many of our northern communities. Sometimes teachers will share a house that has building issues. So now we're going to add another person to this community where there is already a shortage of houses? There are infrastructure issues to consider to ensure this is successful. There could be no place for this person to live, or an unaffordable or inadequate house, so then they might not stay.”

The budget for the CYCC expansion was not yet known, said Dawe-Taylor.