University of Alberta program decreased Red Deer youth depression, suicidal thoughts researchers

A University of Alberta pilot program involving Red Deer students significantly reduced depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts among youth, according to research.

The EMPATHY program ran in Red Deer public schools from 2013 to 2015 and was offered to more than 6,000 youth from Grades 6 to 12.

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The study showed the percentage of students who were suicidal dropped from 4.4 per cent to 2.8 per cent, and rates of anxiety, depression and thoughts of self-harm also declined significantly, researchers said.

“With the school board’s active participation, we switched some of the health classes to mental health training and resiliency classes,” psychiatry professor Peter Silverstone said.

“What this shows is that if you put this program into schools, you change kids fundamentally. And these changes last well over a year.”

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The follow-up study was done 15 months after the program ended.

Middle school students were offered courses in mental health training, while high school students who showed severe depression or suicidal thoughts received access to professional help.

The students were offered supervised online interventions with trained therapists after their parents were notified. If additional help was required, families were referred to external specialists in mental health.

The EMPATHY program was introduced after a number of youth took their own lives in Red Deer in the 2013-2014 school year.

“I think our world is more complicated than it has ever been and it is hard on kids, Red Deer Public Schools Supt. Stu Henry said.

“We see more and more of them presenting with complex mental health issues. So for us to be able to address that issue and tackle it with a really comprehensive approach is powerful.”

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The study also indicated the use of drugs, alcohol and incidents of bullying decreased among students who participated in the program.

EMPATHY ended in 2015 after a loss of funding, but Red Deer Public Schools said it’s continued to use parts of the program.

Mental health training is taught in its middle school health classes and the school district has continued a relationship with Alberta Health, Primary Care Networks and other agencies. The school district will also have mental health therapists in its schools as a new pilot project that starts next year.

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