Just who will the pupils talk to now?
The vital work of school counsellors is under threat thanks to Government cutbacks, writes SHEILA WAYMAN
CLARE, A STUDENT at Trinity College Dublin, believes she owes her life to a counsellor at her secondary school. She had developed an eating disorder after the death of a close friend was followed by the terminal illness of a close relative.
“I was struggling – dealing with death at home and death at school.” The one thing she felt in control of was food. Going into her Leaving Cert year, she started to make herself vomit after eating and thought it was great that she was losing weight.
It wasn’t until after Christmas that a friend realised what Clare was doing. “Obviously I begged and begged her not to tell anyone. I couldn’t turn to my mam or my dad at home.”
The school counsellor was the one person her friend could go to. The counsellor told the friend that he was leaving a whole class appointment open for Clare and if she wanted to drop in she could.
Although Clare reckoned she was fine, she decided to call into the counsellor’s office 10 minutes before the end of class – just to keep her friend happy.
“I went to see him every day after that for almost two weeks.” No matter how busy the day, he always made himself available at a time to suit her.
He worked her around to agreeing that he would make her parents aware of her bulimia “and slowly but surely the problem was resolved”, says Clare, now aged 22.
“If it wasn’t for him, genuinely, I would be dead. I would have kept going and nobody would have copped it. My parents were dealing with somebody dying, they were in and out of hospital, and I have a little sister as well.”
School guidance counsellors are the only mental health professionals to whom teenagers have direct access on a one-to-one basis. They are in the frontline of dealing with issues such as suicide ideation, self-harm, eating disorders, bullying and depression – along with the other half of their brief to advise on choosing careers, subject choices and college applications.
The impact of the decision in the last budget to do away with the “ex quota” allocation of counselling hours – based on the numbers of pupils in a school – and leave schools to find the hours within the existing allocation of teachers is only beginning to be felt now, since the beginning of the new school year in September. In many schools this means the guidance counsellors are spending significantly more hours in the classroom and have less time available for one-to-one counselling.
“The public has not realised what has been lost,” says the president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors (IGC), Gerry Flynn.
Initially, when guidance counsellors were established in schools, the focus was on the careers aspect. It is only over the years, he explains, as counsellors were being presented with a wide range of mental health issues that they started to pursue further training in this area.
It is not understood, he suggests, how much of the counsellors’ work is preventative. By its very nature, because of the confidentiality of the contact with students, “it operates below the radar. Even colleagues in the school wouldn’t be aware of it.”
The recent incident in Co Wexford, where a 16 year old was hospitalised after being unable to make an appointment with a school counsellor, is one indication of what can happen when a door shuts. In that case, after the Department of Education and Skills was informed, the school was granted a “curricular concession” of 11 hours a week to help meet its counselling needs this year.
“Guidance counsellors are obviously upset and worried about the way they are being treated but the real losers are the young people,” says Flynn. “It is the beginning of the dismantling of a support service that has been built up in schools over the years.”
One in three young people does not talk to anybody about his or her problems, according to research by Headstrong, the national centre for youth mental health.
Its My World survey found that 25 per cent of 12-19 year olds said they would be most likely to seek information or support from a teacher or guidance counsellor in relation to their mental health. This compared with 44 per cent who said they would be most likely to use a GP or other doctor, 28 per cent a psychologist and 11 per cent a phone helpline.
Barnardos receives regular queries about the availability of counselling supports for teenagers, from parents “at their wits’ ends” with concerns such as young people being bullied at school or involved in anti-social behaviour or showing signs of anxiety or stress.