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.
At the other end of the scale, many young teachers are employed on an hourly basis, leading to low incomes and little security, despite having spent five to six years or more studying to qualify as teachers in the first place.
Yet all teachers are expected to contribute to the promotion of students’ mental health, which is very difficult to do if you are not sure whether or not you will be working there in the following term.
The new guidelines may operate as a kind of ladder, but every single rung of the ladder from the subject teacher to the principal is weakened or damaged by cutbacks and unreasonable expectations.
An anti-bullying initiative was launched recently, too, making it the second initiative in a week that schools are expected to implement. As a full-time teacher, I have lost count of how many new initiatives there have been since September. Radical reform of the Junior Cert, implementation of a new literacy and numeracy focus, and the latest buzz word, school self-evaluation, are just a few.
These are all supposed to be implemented at a time when there has been an increase in the pupil-teacher ratio, and learning support has been reduced to 85 per cent of what it was two years ago. Bigger classes, less support, and the knock-on effects of the recession on families have all happened at the same time.
Yet teachers had to listen to Minister of State for Mental Health Kathleen Lynch talking confidently on the radio this week about a “whole-of-school” approach. Significantly, she talked about guidance counsellors entirely in the past tense, as in “the great work that they did”.
She suggested that promoting mental health was the job of everyone in the school, including the caretaker and the cleaners.
The Minister assured us that everyone will be trained to identify and help young people in distress, and that the National Office of Suicide Prevention is ready and willing to train everyone (presumably including the caretaker and the cleaners?)
I thought of the decent, hard-working men and women who come into the school to clean, just as the students leave the building, and despair. Has anyone told them that they are part of the master plan to improve the mental health of young people? It would all be funny, if it were not so serious, and if the wellbeing and lives of some of our children were not at risk.