The Role of the School Child and Youth Worker and Social Worker
Over the years, there has been an increase in the number of cases of students who are presenting with mental health issues when they visit the Guidance office. In an effort to handle this influx, counsellors are being sent to in-services that focus on the mental health of students and offered strategies to mitigate student suffering. Further, many counsellors take courses, search for, and attend learning opportunities on their own. However, when you are in your office, sitting across from a student who is at their most vulnerable, this is when we rely on our school team. Two of the key members of our Guidance team are our Child and Youth Worker (CYW) and our Social Worker (SW).
In the province of Ontario, some schools are lucky to have at least one full-time CYW and one SW on staff (some schools may have more than that). At our school of 1,700 students, we have a CYW, Emanuele Bordonali, and a part-time SW, Milly Simon (who is shared with two elementary schools). To say that we Guidance, Administration, Teachers, and Students—simply rely on these two individuals would be a gross understatement.
Education is a primary service for students, with this service being delivered by teachers. SW and CYW are a secondary service within the education system that support students with issues that may interfere with their academic or school success. Since the onset of the pandemic, referrals to SW and CYW have increased due to increased mental health needs; needs that were either exacerbated by issues which were previously present or new issues that were brought on by the pandemic.
SWs work with students, assisting them with issues, some of which may include, but are not limited to: attendance, bereavement, crisis intervention, mental health, parenting concerns, relationship difficulties, self-harming behaviours, divorce/marriage separation/re-marriage challenges, sexuality, substance abuse and violence in the family. For our Social Worker, Milly Simon, many of those issues included social isolation, feeling trapped within a dysfunctional family, the struggle with online learning, the use of devices for school and socializing, and the lack of direct contact with their teachers and their peers. The intensity of being isolated has only heightened pre-existing family issues for many. Big issues around family violence, everyone being stuck at home, conflict driven and/or verbally abusive relationships have intensified during the pandemic. We have students who carry the burden of these situations. The worry they carry on their shoulders—isolated at home and with limited ways or in some cases, no way of reaching out to peers or for help in a way that was meaningful—produces mental stress.
CYWs primarily address the student’s in-school challenges, such as social and behavioural issues, peer-relations, and crisis intervention. Further, CYWs work with parents to help them to support their child to be successful at school. In some cases, that might mean identifying stressors at home. Once the stressors are identified, our CYW, Emanuele Bordonail, would help the student and/or family access the necessary supports to alleviate that stressor. For example, a parent calls the counsellor to talk about their child’s addiction issues. The CYW would invite the family to get external supports, and would then connect them to those external supports. Many times, the CYW facilitates the access to care. At the same time, the CYW may have some limitations. Our CYW does not counsel students but rather, assesses their needs and connects the student and family to needed support. On the other hand, our SW, does a lot of counselling with students, their parents, and also connects and liaises with outside supports and agencies.
Our CYW, also worked with students experiencing mental distress during the pandemic as many adolescents were impacted by social isolation. When factors that supported their well-being (like sports, art, extra-curricular activities, friends, family) either abruptly changed or ceased at the onset of COVID-19, it caused social isolation which may have been a trigger for a mental health crisis. Now that we are moving back towards those factors that make us all feel good, but are especially necessary for teenagers, we will slowly see the positive impact on mood, and functioning and our students’ ability to achieve a greater sense of balance.
In consultation with our school SW and CYW, to talk about this piece, they have noted the difference they have seen in our students within the first two months of being back at school. Now, that our students are back in the building, they once again have a place to go that allows them a break from other things going on in their lives, in the context of their family, homelife, peer relations. Our students can achieve a greater balance in their lives, between school, friendships, activities, and family. Our Support Staff takes care of their mind, body and spirit; the good, the bad and the ugly. They make our students feel safe, provide them with strategies, resources, and act as additional caring adults in their lives when they are in need. Cheers to all our support workers out there that impact our student’s lives on a daily basis. Without you, we would all be lost. And a special thank you to our SW, Milly Simon and our CYW, Emanuele Bordonali, for taking time with me to talk about the integral role of support work and our student’s mental health well-being.
By: Anna Macri