NORTH BAY -- Although the classrooms sit empty and the sports fields are left untouched, students at the Near North School Board aren’t alone as they continue their education online.

"We check in with them just to see how we can support them and then try and develop a plan just kind of on building on already what their strengths are," said Sue Beaulieu, a child and youth development counsellor with the school board.

Calling it mental health check-ins, a team of 25 members are making sure that all students and families have the support they need as struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic continue to rise.

"Unfortunately, the need has increased and we are seeing students that we’ve never seen before," said Sue Lessard, the school board's mental health lead. "There are so many emerging needs related to anxiety and depression… honestly, the referrals are through the roof."

Lessard said her team would typically serve between 1,200 and 1,500 students in a school year.

"This year, I’m sure we’ve capped out around 2,000 students already and the referrals are coming in very fast," she said.  

The team is made up of social workers, child development counsellors, brief and attendance counsellors, Indigenous youth and family outreach workers, as well as mental health and addictions nurses.

"I couldn’t say enough on how important it is," Beaulieu said. "It’s, as you know, with this pandemic, everyone has been affected and if anything maybe that’s the positive thing is the students realizing that they’re not alone in this. We’re all going through it together and learning and struggling at times and relying on each other."

Although unable to meet in person, the school board has found a way to adapt by offering services online, whether it is through Microsoft teams, phone calls, emails or even texting.

"We’ve managed to adjust. I don’t think it’s perfect and it’s not for everyone, but it’s what we have right now," Lessard said.

Adding that for some students, this method has been more beneficial.

"As much as online takes away some element, for teenagers, it gives that once removed so that they can talk more openly," she said.

Beaulieu, who works with students in grades 7-12, said her caseload has doubled this year and although online isn’t perfect, "mental health challenges just get worse and worse when there’s no connection at all."

"I just feel like I can almost instantly either see when we’re doing the Microsoft teams or hear if I’m talking to them on the phone, just the relief in having that connection with someone that is there to support them and validate their thoughts and feelings," she said.

The idea is by improving students' mental health and showing them support while navigating obstacles, their academic success will improve as well.

"Healthy mind, healthy body, all of that needs to happen in order to be a successful learner," Lessard said. "One of the things we know is stress dramatically affects our brain and it limits your ability to access your high-level of functioning. So if our students can be taught life skills around coping and deep breathing and methods of mindfulness and ways of bringing your stress level down, we know that that opens the door for better learning."

For the past six months, the Near North School Board has been working with student senators to come up with wellness packages - a special delivery for all students to help them cope.

Wellness bags for Near North School Board students

"We need tools. We need tools to manage what we’re going through right now," Lessard said.

"Where we landed was three different types of bags – we call it body, mind and spirit. One bag is devoted to things that nurture your body. We’ve got exercise dice in there, exercise cards… protein bars, we’ve got water bottles, stress balls, fidget toys in there. Then the other one is 'mind.' We’ve got things in there to distract your mind. Art projects, you know, mazes, puzzles, rubric cubes, things like that. And then the other one is spirit. Things that raise your spirit. So students like to journal, that like to paint, that like to hear about inspiring things and yoga. So we’ve got yoga cards, just a variety of things in there."

Although not delivered yet due to in-person learning being delayed, students in both the board's elementary and secondary schools will be receiving a wellness package.

Experts say although the need for mental health support has increased significantly over the last year as students and families continue to overcome unprecedented obstacles, the pandemic has helped show people that they aren’t alone.

"I can remember it wasn’t so long ago where sometimes when I even said 'mental health,' I mean, people would kind of be taken aback and say ‘well I don’t have any mental health (challenges),'"Beaulieu said. "But then realizing, yes, we all have mental health and sometimes our mental health is healthy and sometimes it isn’t, and it's okay to reach out."

The mental health team has also created campaigns on social media to help students, including a new Instagram page called Thrive in a Hive.

"We’re all going through it together and learning and struggling at times and relying on each other," Beaulieu said.

"I spend a lot of time, again, building on their skills and just reminding them just how strong they are and how resilient they are and even much more now in this past year."