UAlberta pilot program found to significantly lessen cases of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts among students.  

The EMPATHY program ran in Red Deer public schools from 2013 to 2015, and was offered to more than 6,000 youth in grades six through 12. Researchers found the percentage of the total school population who were actively suicidal decreased from 4.4 per cent to 2.8 per cent, in a follow-up study conducted 15 months after the program ended. Rates of anxiety, depression and thoughts of self-harm also saw significant declines.

Youth in middle school were offered courses in mental health training, while those in high school had access to professional help if they were identified as having severe depression or suicidal thoughts.

Superintendent Stu Henry of Red Deer Public Schools said within a year and a half of the program’s start, dramatic improvements could already be seen. He believes the results show there is a need for mental health training among youth.

“I think our world is more complicated than it has ever been and it is hard on kids,” said Henry. “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.”

Sherri Bunt, Community Liaison Worker at Hunting Hills High School worked directly with students involved in the program.

“It was a program that identified students having problems with mental health. With such a collaborative approach, we would do what's best for the students needs. Students have told me it's helped them a lot by giving them practice at being confident”, says Bunt.

Maryam Mohammed, a grade nine student at Hunting Hills High School, took part in the EMPATHY program and says it changed her life for the better.

“I remember breaking down stereotypes and having a positive mindset telling myself, everything is going to be okay”.

Mohammed was extremely active at her high school playing both badminton and basketball. She says the EMPATHY program gave her the confidence to continue playing school sports.

“Coming to a sports game, I would have lots of anxiety and thoughts like, maybe the team would be better without mt. After the EMPATHY lessons, I learned that instead of focusing on the negative, I could believe in myself and my own abilities”.

EMPATHY was discontinued after a loss of funding in 2015, but despite seeing the program end, Red Deer Public Schools has continued to use elements of EMPATHY.

Mental health training is still taught in its middle school health classes and the school district has kept an active relationship with Alberta Health, Primary Care Networks and other agencies in order to pro-actively offer help to kids in need. Starting next year, Red Deer Public Schools will also have several mental health therapists housed in its schools as part of a new pilot project.

“It is very much modeled on the pieces that we really thought made a difference during the EMPATHY project,” said Henry. “If we can normalize talk about mental health and have somebody that the kids know at the school who has got that level of training and support who can help them at the school level, then we will greatly reduce emergency issues.”


Read more about the EMPATHY study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry.

Article information provided by Ross Neitz, Communications Associate,

Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, University of Alberta