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Serving others through mental health advocacy in British Columbia

Stories | 09.19.22

As a child, William Nicholls-Allison was very social and eager to help others. He took a deep interest in science, nature, and the outdoors, noting that Steve Irwin was his hero at the time. As an adult, the Adler University alumnus’ interest in the sciences and serving others has since only grown, leading him to combine the two into his current profession – an elementary school counsellor in Victoria, British Columbia.

School counsellors work with hundreds of children every week teaching mental health-focused lessons in classrooms, counselling students, connecting families with services, collaborating with educators and outside agencies, and more. Currently, the maximum student to school counsellor ratio in B.C. is 693:1.

“It is a fast-paced job,” said Nicholls-Allison. “But if you love working with children, helping them grow and learn, it’s the best job in the world.”

He credits his time at Adler University’s Vancouver Campus in preparing him for work in an educational environment. It also readied him for the advocacy work that has become a growing aspect of his job, including serving on committees for the British Columbia Ministry of Education.

“I want to advocate for our students, our families, and our educators,” he said. As word of advice to this year’s graduates, Nicholls-Allison added: “Becoming a counsellor is risky because you will be changed by the people you meet. This process of growth is fed by love and starved by isolation.”

Nicholls-Allison graduated from Adler Vancouver in 2020 with a master’s in counselling psychology. Before pursuing his graduate studies, he earned a bachelor’s in psychology and a bachelor’s in education, the latter being a requirement for school counsellors in B.C.

When he began exploring graduate programs, he noted that Adler was the only institution where he could specialize in school and youth, complete a master’s thesis, and participate in community-based work, all while focusing on social justice.

“I’ve always taken to helping others, and when I took my first class in psychology, a lightbulb went off,” he said. “It ignited my passion.”

With a high ratio of students per school counsellor, Nicholls-Allison sees the effects of a shortage of teachers and teacher-counsellors (school counsellors) in real-time. Additionally, the pandemic has affected students’ and teachers’ mental health. Last winter, he applied for the British Columbia Ministry of Education’s Regional Mental Health Listening Committee, seeing it as an opportunity to contribute to positive change.

Composed of one representative from each school district across Vancouver Island, the Committee convened to discuss first-hand experiences within schools regarding student and staff mental health. This committee was 1 of 6 across the province. Everyday observations between group members included increased anxiety levels, which calls for the need for more qualified school counsellors, more connection to the natural world, and increased playtime for students.

This work led Nicholls-Allison to join another committee for the Ministry of Education: The Mental Health Collaborative Resource and Review Development Committee. On this committee, he and nine other educators from B.C., as well as representatives from the Ministry, collaborated to update the Ministry’s broader mental health promotion strategy.

“I think our education system is moving in a positive direction by emphasizing the critical importance of students’ mental health in their growth and learning,” he said.

While at Adler, he said, the community and collaboration helped make it a unique learning experience for him, a lesson he applies to his work as a school counsellor and advocate.

“Those years spent at Adler helped me re-orient towards social interest,” he said.

Most recently, Nicholls-Allison expressed his concern for the well-being of the province’s children in meetings with provincial member of the legislative assembly Grace Lore and federal member of parliament Laurel Collins.

“The years of preparation was like laying down mud so that I could grow roses,” he said. “Now I’m seeing little sprouts coming up.”

Nicholls-Allison also currently runs a website titled, “Will to Be.” The most recent articles, “Guarantee Access to Mental Health Care for Every Child” and “Going Upstream to End the Opioid Overdose Emergency,” encapsulate his interests in child development, mental health, and social justice. His Adler graduate thesis is also available for viewing on his website.

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