A pilot project to provide primary school pupils with access to specialist counsellors has been welcomed as a “groundbreaking” initiative by campaigners.
Minister for Education Norma Foley confirmed at Fianna Fáil’s árdfheis at the weekend the Government will invest over €5 million in piloting a programme of counselling supports for primary school students.
It follows calls from teachers and experts for the development of in-school counselling in response to rising levels of anxiety.
While experts say the proportion of mental health problems among schoolchildren has been growing for many years, there is fresh evidence that it has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
HSE-run child and adolescent mental health services have seen a 40 per cent year-on-year increase in caseloads with more than 4,000 young people waiting for assessments.
Professor Paul Downes, director of the Educational Disadvantage Centre at DCU’s Institute of Education, said it was a “hugely significant” development.
“School-based specialist individual emotional counselling supports offer a chance to intervene early and flexibly, to prevent expanding cycles of despair, anxiety, loss of self-esteem, failure identity and to help prevent early school leaving and bullying,” he said.
“This initiative brings recognition that mental health is an education issue, as it impacts directly on children and young people’s educational engagement, motivation, concentration, attendance, peer and teacher relations, and ultimately academic attainment in school.”
Ms Foley said her department will consult with experts about various models of support before deciding on how the pilot programme will be structured.
In the run-up to last week’s budget, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) called for specialist counselling and therapeutic supports for pupils who are struggling to achieve their potential due to mental health challenges
INTO general secretary John Boyle said early intervention was vital to help prevent mental health issues having a serious long-term impact on the wellbeing of the next generation.
The Oireachtas education committee had also recommended such a measure in response to the rising level of need among schoolchildren.
Prof Downes said teachers cannot be expected to provide one-to-one supports for pupils experiencing emotional distress, trauma or adverse childhood experiences.
These interventions, he said, require requires specialist emotional counsellors on-site in all schools
“This new initiative addresses a long-standing gap in school-based provision of specialist emotional counselling that is widely available in many countries internationally,” he said.
“Many teachers and schools in Ireland have been crying out for these supports for years and finally this key system gap and need is being addressed in a national pilot.”
He added that it was vital that specialist emotional counsellors are not simply contracted into schools but are embedded as school staff to gain a reputation of trust in the school and to offer sustained and not broken, piecemeal provision.
*This one-to-one specialist counselling offers sustained support and recognises the complexity of mental health stresses in many children’s lives impacting on their education, going beyond pre-packaged wellbeing programmes,” he said.
There has been a move in recent years towards providing a greater level of therapeutic supports in schools in recognition that these issues pose barriers to pupils’ learning.
A pilot in-school and early years therapy support demonstration project has been running across 75 schools which connects school communities and teachers with occupational and speech and language therapists assigned to their schools.
The project has faced difficulties, however, due to a shortage of qualified therapists in the community.