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.

Young people need to be able to access counselling support easily and when they need it, and school guidance counsellors provide an invaluable service, says the national manager of Barnardos training and resource service, Anne Conroy.

Currently there is no other general counselling service available for teenagers, she points out. “So it depends on whether people can afford to pay for private counselling, which is not an option for most of the parents who contact Barnardos.”

So how do school counsellors operate? Betty McLaughlin is a guidance teacher at a 720-pupil, boys school, Coláiste Mhuire, in Mullingar, Co Westmeath. Students approach her themselves, are referred by teachers or, sometimes, parents ring up concerned that their son is out of sorts and she will follow it up.

She deals with “everything from study skills to somebody who is at risk – it is an unbelievable range”. She has 22 hours a week – of which 18 are still available for one-to-one counselling “which is very unusual at the moment”.

She also gives career classes and teaches social personal and health education to first years. An additional counsellor has three hours a week.

“I am in the very lucky position that my principal maintained the counselling service by creative re-allocation,” says McLaughlin, who is also the IGC press officer. “He amalgamated religion classes.”

Principals have to make hard choices, agrees the director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, Clive Byrne, but guidance counselling is only one aspect of cuts in recent years.

While most schools have little room to manoeuvre, he says, the association’s policy position in drawing up a template to help schools to maximise guidance services from current teacher allocations was that the counsellors should retain one-to-one time with students.

“What it needed was close collaboration between the principal and the guidance counsellor to see what was possible in the present context,” he adds.

McLaughlin is hearing at first hand the stress families are under in the recession and increasingly sees students who seek counselling because they don’t want to burden their parents with further worries.

“That would really emphasise for me the importance of the service we provide,” says McLaughlin.

Counsellors will always make students aware that although their conversations are confidential, if it is believed that they, or someone else spoken about, is at risk physically or emotionally, other people who need to know, such as parents and the principal, will be contacted.

They usually work the pupil around to agreeing to make contact with the parents so, as another guidance counsellor puts it, “you don’t cut them off from us”.

Like any school counsellor, McLaughlin is encountering teenagers who are thinking about suicide, and she must always err on the side of caution.

“If a student came in and I felt they were at risk, I investigate do they have a plan in their head and how serious are they.” Sometimes it is a case of giving them reasons for living, she says, which can be a holding position for them until they can get the further professional help that they need.

Dr Brendan Byrne is a psychotherapist and guidance counsellor working in a large community school in Dublin. He is concerned that his teaching load has increased significantly this year, which means he is out of his counsellor’s office a lot more.

“The very time you are out of the office is the very time you could have a student in crisis,” he points out. It is also far from ideal having to watch the clock during a consultation, knowing that in a few minutes the bell is going to ring and he is going to have to walk out to a waiting class.

“It doesn’t mean that every day you are dealing with life and death but in the course of, say, a month you might have two students who are talking about taking their own lives or being severely depressed. To limit that conversation to 40 minutes is not really good practice.

“You lose the moment – because it is at that moment you can really make a breakthrough or they realise themselves that they need to talk to somebody else about this.”

No matter what the issue – bullying, parental separation, eating disorder, sexual identity, the “list is endless” – it might take a pupil days if not weeks to summon up the courage to contact the school counsellor. He does not want to be rushing off when that knock comes on the door.

Byrne makes regular appointments with students who are struggling. Teachers may also send a distressed student to him, or express concern about a student who he will then “accidentally” bump into in the corridor and see if they want to talk.

In his experience the main flash points in a student’s life are in first year and then around the time of the State exams. “First years need a lot of support. Generally the issues are quite trivial but to them they’re not,” he stresses. They can become quite overwhelmed.

Quite often it is peers who notice signs of anxiety and depression among fifth and sixth year pupils and he will be approached by a group of students worried about a classmate – “somebody who has stopped connecting with them, stopped going out at the weekend with them, stopped playing the sport they used to do, just not themselves”.

The most common theme in issues that arise is relationships – with peers, with parents or with teachers. He is dealing with bullying – and both the victims and the perpetrators need help – and the impact of social networking media.

Cases such as Ciara Pugsley (16), whose death in Co Leitrim last month was attributed to internet bullying, show just how devastating it can be for a teenager.

The difficulty for the school is that it is happening outside school and so has to be dealt with mainly by parents and gardaí, he says. “Obviously the school would support pupils being adversely affected but, in terms of investigation and looking at stuff on Facebook, I don’t think we can really go there as schools.”

The cutbacks in hours mean that counsellors have to do far more prioritising, Byrne says. “There is far more call on you to make judgments on who really needs the support at a particular time.” And with that comes an increased risk of a vulnerable teenager being overlooked.

“The decision flies in the face of all the public rhetoric about the risk of suicide and all the worry about the people of a certain age,” he adds. “The very people who were there in the frontline providing their support – their contact has now been reduced. It just does not make sense.”

Honor McAndrew is a guidance counsellor working in a fee-paying school, St Andrew’s in Booterstown, Dublin, and is dealing with all the same teenage issues as colleagues in other schools. She too is seeing more pupils affected by financial concerns at home.

It is impossible to say where the career guidance side of the job stops and personal counselling starts.

“In every conversation we ask how things are going at home, how study is going,” says McAndrew, who has not had her one-on-one hours cut. “It would be guidance but you would also be looking at the whole person.”

It can take a while for the real issues to become apparent. She recalls a pupil coming to talk to her about poor exam results who disclosed, only after a number of sessions, that a friend had died by suicide. “Only that I continued to see her and she started to trust me,” says McAndrew, who also stresses counsellors’ vital role in “holding” students until parents can get appropriate outside professional support.

Jackie O’Callaghan of the National Parents’ Council Post-Primary points out the importance of pupils being able to go into a guidance counsellor’s office under the guise of discussing subject choice or something, when they really want to talk about a personal matter.

“From that point of view, it is hugely important that anonymity is retained within the school,” she says.

Clare, looking back at her last year in school when she was suffering from bulimia and thought everybody was against her, wonders now what she was thinking. “You get so down. You are not getting the nutrition you need so your head is not straight and your hormones are all over the place. You get suicidal thoughts.”

As a teenager, you act on impulse, she points out, so she was not surprised to hear of the 16-year-old boy harming himself after not being able to talk to a school counsellor. “You need someone,” she adds, “to tell you that your thinking is not right, it’s not normal and they are going to help you.”

WHAT THE MINISTER SAYS

All schools must continue to provide guidance to their students, the Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn, told the Dáil in July, even though it must now be managed from out of their standard staff allocation.

“I am confident that schools will act in the best interest of students when determining precisely how to use the teaching resources available to them,” he added.

His office was unable to offer any additional comments for this article before the deadline.