The groups involved in protesting potential school closures in Maxville, Alexandria, and elsewhere have advanced many arguments – including how young families, local economies, and property values might be affected. But perhaps none are more convincing than the idea that small schools can have a positive effect on the mental health of students.
The office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth in Ontario  published a report on child and youth mental health in Ontario, which says the experiences people have as children can have an effect on their mental health later immediately and later in life. “Too few supports or too many negative experiences at a time can leave children vulnerable and overwhelmed,” it says.
The report notes most children spend many hours a day at school, and says services should be available where students are, “in order to reduce stigma and keep people connected to their communities.” The report quotes a study completed by the York Board of Education, which included parents and other education stakeholders. “The most frequent comments about well-being were the need for teachers to be aware of students’ social and emotional needs, as well as their academic needs, and a desire for resources to support students’ social and emotional needs in the schools.”
At the meeting which took place Monday evening in Cornwall, among those arguing that closing small, rural schools could have an effect on students’ mental health were Dr. Claude Manigat, former chief of staff in Psychiatry at Cornwall community hospital, and Dr. Suzanne Filion, a member of the province’s Mental Health and Addictions Leadership Advisory Council and director of development at Hawkesbury and District General Hospital. Our reporter spoke with a parent of Glengarry District High School students who has seen people struggle with mental health issues.
The advocacy group People for Education, in a report about the closures of small schools in Ontario, argued smaller schools are better for students: “In larger schools, students are more likely to get ‘lost’ because of the anonymity created by larger student populations; and they drop out of larger schools at a significantly higher rate than they do out of small schools. American studies have shown the dropout rate of a high school increases by about one per cent for every 400 students it adds to its enrolment,” it says.
We know our health care system is struggling to meet the demand for mental health services for children: Children’s Mental Health Ontario, in a statement published in November, 2016, said young people in urgent need of care are waiting up to 1.5 years for care, in some cases. In Eastern Ontario in particular, “kids wait anywhere from two weeks to two years for counselling and therapy, and in some cases longer for intensive treatment,” according to the organization.
This is not to say bigger schools can’t do a good job of educating children – and one could argue that at a larger school, it’s more cost-effective to provide important services. But, we shouldn’t ignore the role a small, personal school could have on the mental health of its students. It’s an important piece of the puzzle the Upper Canada District School Board has to solve. Let us hope it will carefully consider what was said in Cornwall before making a final decision.