Members of the Belmont Youth Health Committee

High school wellness centres open on West Shore

Services vary between Belmont and Royal Bay secondaries

Doctors, nurse practitioners, public health nurses and mental health and substance use counsellors are rolling up their sleeves to get to work helping West Shore youth.

All three high schools in the Sooke school district will be welcoming these health professionals into their halls this fall as physical, sexual and emotional health concerns will be addressed in the schools, enhancing access to these primary care services right on campus.

“We’re really excited about this,” said Kathy Easton, Island Health’s public health manager.

Easton noted these services are possible through a partnership between Island Health, SD62 and the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD). She added that youth don’t generally access health services in the same way as adults, which is why it is even more important to provide this type of opportunity.

“SD62 contacted Island Health a number of years ago when they were planing the Neighbourhood Learning Centres,” Easton said. “They created space for community.”

The Wellness Centre at Belmont secondary is considered the hub of the program and is staffed by two full-time public health nurses and a part-time physician. Two nurse practitioners and mental health and substance use counsellors from Island Health and MCFD will also be at the centre on a part-time basis.

At Royal Bay secondary and Edward Milne Community School, a doctor will be on site for half a day a week starting later in September. “We provide reception and support at those two schools as well,” Easton noted.

All West Shore youth, regardless of what school they attend or whether or not they have a family doctor will be able to access these services as well as health promotion strategies. The aim is to provide a safe place for students to be assess, treated and if necessary, referred to other programs or more specialized services as needed.

The ultimate goal is to have all of the services offered at Belmont then offered at the other two schools through outreach programs in the future. It’s a model that’s being tested this school year in Nanaimo. John Barsby secondary opened as the hub school in Nanaimo’s program last year and now will offer more programs to other schools in the area through outreach initiatives.

“They have really good participation from the students and lots of positive feedback,” Easton said.

Some of that feedback is also helping shape local services. Easton noted they heard from a number of students that they wanted a safe environment just to talk to health professionals and not have to be referred to different practitioners or counsellors. The Belmont centre, along with the other two, will feature an “every door is the right door” policy, Easton said, where students can feel safe talking about whatever they need to in a non-stigmatizing atmosphere.

But this concept of providing services directly in schools isn’t new and the Island Sexual Health Society (ISHS) has had a presence on the West Shore for years.

“We were in the original Belmont school,” said Bobbi Turner, ISHS executive director. After it was decided that the school would be split into two new high schools, Turner said “we stretched our funding to try and accommodate both schools.” But with other parties stepping into the fold, Turner said they eventually decided to take a step back from offering services at the original location. “We’re sad about leaving Belmont but we leave it in good hands,” she added.

Island Sexual Health Society is a non-profit, registered charity, that offers pro-choice, comprehensive sexual health clinics, education programs and products for residents throughout the region, Island and Gulf Islands. The society was formerly a part of Planned Parenthood and became an independent society in 1986. All of the services they offer in high schools are free, including contraceptives.

Getting services into all three of the high schools has been a complex process with the number of different groups involved and Turner said their main goal was to meld those services in a way that wasn’t too confusing for youth. “Originally, we were thinking we would stay on at Belmont but … it was too risky for the kids,” she said, adding that “90 per cent of the time they’re coming in for contraception.” With having Island Health and ISHS both offering services at Belmont, the fear was that students would be turned away or told to come back on a different day to get contraception from the other service provider. Turner noted that’s when you lose the youth and that was a risk they didn’t want to take.

“When we met with Island Health we encouraged them to take on the full load,” she said of services at Belmont.

While it was a tough decision to leave Belmont, Turner said they are now focussing their efforts on providing services at the other two high schools, where medical staff aren’t stationed five days a week, starting at Royal Bay with the hope of eventually expanding to Edward Milne. “That’s really what we’re about, filling those gaps and services in the community,” she added, noting the services at Royal Bay are also open to all youth in the area.

ISHS started providing services at Royal Bay last year and by the end of the school year, Turner said they were being well utilized. Some of the final details on what all of those services will look like this year are still being ironed out but Turner noted they will be in the school for four hours a week, starting this week. “We anticipate it will be quite a quick build up,” she said, adding “the school has just been amazing … They’ve worked really hard to make this happen for us.”

Part of working with the school has also seen ISHS work with students involved in a youth advisory committee to spread the word about the centre, shape how the space looks, and provide input on what services they would like to see offered.

“We’re really keen to hear what the youth have to say,” Turner added.

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