Nancy Rosaasen stands quietly in front of a bulletin board, deep in thought.
Yellow certificates carrying the names of her students are stapled in a perfect grid to the achievement board.
“A lot of thoughts attached to every name you read,” she said.
As one of the two teachers for Keewatin-Patricia District School Board’s alternative education program in Dryden, Ont., Rosaasen works with students who are not finding success in a traditional classroom — students who are often dealing with other disruptions in their lives.
“Some days you think, ‘Wow, if I had to handle some of the challenges that these kids are handling, I don’t know if I’d even get out of bed,'” she said.
Rosaasen said consistent challenges that many, but not all, of her students face are associated with poverty. Mental health struggles. Substance abuse issues. Lack of affordable housing. Trouble finding work to support their families.
These are issues young people in northwestern Ontario are more likely to be adversely affected by than the rest of Ontario.
But the kids do show up, and they do everything they can. Those yellow certificates demonstrate their hard work, Rosaasen said.
It’s why officials with the City of Dryden are focusing on connecting young people to the community, even as it’s swept by addictions and homelessness crises.
Region’s youth disproportionately affected
A 2017 study from the Northwestern Health Unit, which includes 19 municipalities including Dryden and 39 First Nations, details the disproportionate effects of mental health and substance misuse felt by young people.
The study found people 15 to 24 years old in the health unit are eight times more likely to die by suicide as compared to that demographic in the rest of Ontario. As well, that age group is:
- More than five times more likely to go to the hospital from alcohol misuse.
- Nearly four times more likely to be hospitalized from self-harm.
- Two times more likely to be hospitalized from substance misuse.
People in Dryden are trying to change those numbers and prevent them from getting worse by reaching out to youth early and often.
Alt-ed making kids ‘feel seen and valuable’
The alternative education program supports about 60 students, or 10 per cent of the high school student body in Dryden.
“When our kids come in, we try to create connection to their community so they feel hopeful. They feel seen and valuable,” Rosaasen said.
The goal of the alternative education program isn’t always or just graduation.
“It feels pointless to be talking to them about how to write an essay if they don’t have a place to live or if they are hungry or they’re trying to find a job or they need a mental health intervention,” said Rosaasen.
She said they’re just trying to meet the needs of their students and help them achieve their goals.
The classroom also acts as a bridge to other community-based programs, as organizations will often come into the building and connect them to other resources or offer other life and employability skills.
Rosaasen said the students they work with are certainly not in crisis mode all the time, and the trauma some have experienced is just one part of their story.
“Most of our day is helping the kids with everyday ordinary things … but we just hope that those kids that are experiencing [challenges with mental health, addictions and precarious housing] feel comfortable enough to come here and look for help.”
Dryden youth centre reopens
Henry Wall, chief administrative officer of the Kenora District Services Board, said it’s about creating a space where young people feel safe.
“We need, as a community, to have a place where young people can come and be themselves.”
Wall said the district has some of the province’s highest rates of youth suicide, youth living in poverty, and youth struggling with mental health and addictions.
“We actually need to make an exceptional effort to come together and let our young people know, ‘Hey, we see you, we hear you, and we’re actually going to do all we can to make sure you belong in this community.'”
Wall said they were able to do just that when the city reopened a community youth centre.
WATCH | Dryden reopen its youth centre.
After being closed for nearly two years, the city of Dryden, Ont., once again has a safe space for young people in the community. 2:31
He said it’s a big step forward when it comes to improving youth mental health outcomes in Dryden.
A big step for a small city that doesn’t have the resources to deal with the human cost of Canada’s growing mental health, addictions and homelessness crises.