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Counselling for the young shouldn't be a luxury

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

I’m sure I wasn’t alone to be saddened to read this week that an NHS report indicates that the probable rates of mental disorders among children and young people has increased by almost half since 2017. Unsurprisingly, Covid and lockdown have been identified as aggravating factors, however, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that all would have been rosy had this not turned out to be such a challenging year.

The report suggested that one in six children of Primary and Secondary school age was identified as having a disorder. In 2017, it was one in nine.

This raises so many concerns. As someone who has worked in education for many years, I can’t help but reflect on the responsibility heaped on adults in schools. They are largely untrained in mental health and without access to clinical supervision. In even the smallest of primary school there could be 15 to 20 children struggling with mental illness. In a large secondary school, more than 200. There may well be five or more struggling children in any one classroom.

There has been a greater emphasis on mental health awareness as part of staff professional development in schools in recent years. The emphasis is rightly, however, about awareness, not expertise. The only mental health professional in most schools is the school counsellor and I have never come across a school that has more than one qualified counsellor. In fact, counselling provision in schools is often largely provided by unqualified counsellors who are in training. I know, I was one of them.

There is a greater need for school counselling provision by qualified counsellors than ever before. If, however, one looks at the vacancy bulletins issued by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, it is clear that there been no rush to recruit. There have been recent advertised vacancies in schools, however, these have been overwhelmingly in fee-paying independent schools. The truth is that the need is there across the board, but there is no money available to state schools to address it.

I’m glad that some independent schools have decided to increase counselling provision. The welfare of the young people they serve is important. It is, however, not more important than the welfare of young people in the state sector. Surely we can’t leave the mental health of a generation to chance. Professional support should not be restricted to the children of parents who can afford a private education or the services of an independent counsellor.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, has said that the findings of the report “should shock the government into immediate action to tackle a growing epidemic”. If any response was immediate, it would still be some while before the effects were felt. The young people in our schools have already had to deal with almost nine months of disrupted life. How many more months will they have to wait before the adults who hold the duty for their care take effective steps to support them?

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