As a social worker who works with youth, and has for the past 22 years, I spend most of my time with who I call "tweeners."
These are the youth who are in-between. School is not working for them. They are often on the verge of dropping out, but they don't yet possess (or haven't been given) the skills to find and hold down a job. They're often facing challenges at home such as violence and addiction and/or grappling with mental illness. With so much of their life unfolding on social media, they have less face-to-face interaction with people, are more socially awkward, are getting less physical activity and as a result are dealing with increased anxiety and other mental health issues.
Sometimes they get involved in crime and are navigating the criminal justice system. The struggles they're facing outside of school cause them to struggle in school, if they go at all. They need to address these problems before they even think about going to biology or calculus.
Schools must be a place where youth have their needs met—not just their educational needs, but their emotional and mental health needs too. To that end, I have a brave suggestion for the gurus of education in Nova Scotia: I believe that the guidance counsellor is an outdated position and that junior high and high schools should employ youth workers instead.
Generally, the students who walk through the guidance counsellor's doors are those who need the least guidance, who have the momentum and are already "going places" (usually these places are a post-secondary education). These students (most of whom have the motivation, the grades and the means) would likely still be "going places" without access to a guidance counsellor.
Guidance counsellors are former teachers, and understandably, their background is in and their priorities are education (classroom education). Youth workers are trained to assess the immediate needs of students in terms of health, mental health, learning capability and potential.
We look at people's abilities, their interests and make connections: a young man tells me the only thing he's good at is helping his friends, and together we decide that nursing (a career path he had never considered) might be his path. We make referrals to health-care providers, counsellors and introduce them to people who can serve as mentors and role-models. A youth worker is there every step of the way, even when you trip up. Right now, the desperate need for youth workers is being met by after-school and outside-of-school programs, by non-profit organizations with limited resources.
And the pièce de résistance: I recommend that we should also have actual counsellors in the schools, trained psychotherapists and/or psychologists available, free of charge, to our youth. Wait times are so long that by the time they get a referral to a mental health professional, the youth I work with often don't even want to talk to someone anymore. Having these professionals right there in our schools would lessen wait times for youth, but also decrease the strain on Nova Scotia's health and mental health system.
Let's be the first province to do this. Let's be the example for Ontario, for Manitoba, instead of it being the other way around. Let's actually put students, Nova Scotian youth, first.
Dennis Adams is director of operations and programs at Leave out ViolencE (LOVE). He’s worked in educating Nova Scotian youth for the past 14 years