Gary Folker has more than 30 years of experience pioneering healthcare technology in Canada in senior-management and executive positions with large Canadian healthcare firms.
Recent reports indicate that no group is suffering more-so than our youth when it comes to mental health. Anxiety, depression, and suicide rates, already rising pre-pandemic, are significantly increased amongst our youngest. As things like anxiety and depression take root in a child, their academic performance and socialization skills also suffer. This has the likelihood to have far-reaching economic and societal impacts we are yet to recognize which may see a future with far fewer youth able or willing to reach their potential.
When we consider that in the past, for roughly a third of the week our educators supported our youth, it should come as no surprise that closing schools during the pandemic has had such a profound effect on parents as we struggle to support our kids, as well as our own issues in working from home and loss of social connections. As schools re-open, time-constrained educators will need tools to better connect with and understand the needs of youth, as academic success is strongly aligned with good physical, mental and social health. In education, this is frequently referred to as Social & Emotional Learning (SEL), and like what we in healthcare refer to as Social Determinants of Health (SDoH). Regardless of the terminology, what is known is that unless we address these ‘foundational needs’ of students, they won’t thrive, be it physically, emotionally, or academically. And we will all suffer.
In Canada, where healthcare and education are both public systems, represented at both the provincial and federal levels, we should be a leader in addressing this issue. Together we should have a common goal when it comes to the mental health and wellbeing of the whole person. Every one of us has a life-long need to learn and practice everything from empathy to resiliency. While not the classic 3Rs academics are historically focused-upon, these life-long skills are rapidly becoming a more substantial part of the educational curriculum, and none-too-soon.
And while our healthcare systems continue to think in terms of clinical diagnosis and treatment of anxiety and depression, as well as social determinants of health, an emerging reality is taking root in thought-leading communities around the world. That reality is that the education system may be a powerful ally in healthcare’s mandate to improve the mental and physical health of future generations. But while having common but separate goals and objectives, in most cases education and healthcare systems don’t communicate or collaborate. This presents a great opportunity if we look beyond our silos of “healthcare” and “education,” and instead take a “patient-centric” view. Your patient, after all, is someone’s student.
The good news is that advances are on the horizon with novel programs linking the academic community with the healthcare community to support our youth.
Two programs south of us in the United States involve King County Washington’s partnership with Seattle Children’s Research Institute to assess the mental and behavioral needs of youth in and around Seattle, using a tool called Check Yourself. Another is Ascension Health Michigan’s School-Based Health Center (SBHC) and their use of Possibilities for Change’s Rapid Adolescent Prevention Screening (RAAPS), which enables the collection of sensitive information to identify the greatest risks impacting youth health, wellness, and academic success. The screening tools, both powered by the Tickit Health platform, help to assess the mental health and risky behaviors of students. In both these middle and high school programs, screening is universal, so not one child or youth is missed, and previously unidentified issues are brought to the surface.
Closer to home, Bridge the gapp was launched in Newfoundland and Labrador to help youth and adults to connect with guidance and support for mental health and addictions. From a computer, tablet or a phone, youth and adults can instantly access content that can provide advice, inspiration, assurance, or direction for finding additional supports when they need it the most. The program offers self-help resources, links to local services, and allows the user to share their own personal stories. But this was done in isolation of those in education who may not even know it exists, and may be the first resource students and youth turn to for help.
The healthcare system should take advantage of the education system’s similar interests as a ‘first line of defense.’ Let the schools assess the mental, behavioral, and SEL needs of kids through validated and standardized screening and triaging tools, and where they can support them with school counselors and psychologists. When the education systems’ efforts reach a limit in their mandate, let that information flow to the health system where it can pick-up support for our future generations. For the most acute of cases, create a referral mechanism where the school can rely upon the healthcare system efficiently. Given much of the assessment can be done now digitally and remotely, it provides a perfect means of keeping tabs on how our youth are doing even if they are not walking the halls of our schools and with peers in the lunchroom as often. Combined with telehealth, we have the tools to innovate at a systemic level and not lose a generation.
For young people facing mental health challenges, identifying risk and providing digitally empathetic support can be a game-changer.
Again, your patient is someone’s student. Why not work together.