Schools struggle to maintain vital mental health support as cuts bite
It is profoundly ironic that the Government is launching mental health promotion guidelines at a time when cutbacks are seriously limiting the ability of schools to provide care for students.
Despite this, Well-Being In Post-Primary Schools: Guidelines for Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention is an excellent document, and an affirmation of the good work already being done by most schools.
The framework suggested is like a ladder: support for all, support for some, and support for the few. In other words, every student must be helped to maintain positive mental health, but some will need more assistance, and a few will need ongoing and very intense support.
Guidance counsellors are referred to again and again, at every level of care. For example, the document has a case study on how to reintegrate a student who has suffered serious mental health issues requiring hospitalisation or prolonged absence from school.
It stresses the need to “assign a supportive, approachable, and sensitive staff member who has a positive rapport with the young person. In most cases, it is likely that the guidance counsellor will be allocated this role”.
But in many schools, there is now no guidance counsellor, or if there is, he or she spends most of his or her time in the classroom. Research by the Institute for Guidance Counsellors suggests that one-to-one counselling sessions have been reduced by more than 50 per cent since recent cutbacks.
So who will take up the slack, at a most crucial and sensitive time in a young person’s life? The majority of teachers are caring human beings, but goodwill is no substitute for the specialist qualifications and ongoing professional supervision that guidance counsellors have.
Students at risk
Year heads, who have responsibility for a whole year, are also referred to as a key part of a care team. Among many other roles, they help maintain contact between school and home, are involved in identifying students at risk, and often facilitate referrals to more qualified people.
However, due to a moratorium on middle-management posts, many schools are limping along without a full complement of year heads, leaving either volunteers or the principal and deputy principal to take over their duties.
This is unsustainable and can’t continue.
Ferdia Kelly of the Joint Managerial Body, the management body for voluntary secondary schools, has said that the level of stress among senior school management that he has witnessed since the beginning of this school year is unprecedented.
Principals are finding their job impossible. Significantly, he says that more than 40 per cent of principals have been only four years or less in the job, and that many of their predecessors took early retirement due to the enormous pressures they encountered.