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Dublin: 14 °C Thursday 24 July, 2014

Column: Action plans for young people may be laudable – but they’re just window-dressing

The Government says it is prioritising young peoples’ mental health while, at the same time, cutting the role of counsellors, writes Gerry Flynn.

Gerry Flynn

IN BUDGET 2012 the government removed the quota system for the provision of guidance counselling in our schools. Prior to these changes, each school got one or more counsellors based on the numbers of young people in each school; there were guaranteed, specific hours for guidance counselling. For instance, 300 plus students equalled about 11 hours, plus 4oo was equalled 17 hours and so on. This time was guaranteed and ring-fenced, so effectively what happened was schools were told that guidance had to be managed by schools from within their standard teacher allocations.

Before the budgetary axe fell, every school had a provision of guidance counsellor hours, but now the hours have been struck down significantly. There is no doubt that there has been significant job losses, too, as a result of decisions made. Many of the part-time hours which would have been in the smaller schools are completely gone.

Holistic counselling model

We did a survey and found there has been a 21 per cent reduction nationwide in guidance counsellor hours, but the more interesting figures relate to the amount of one-to-one time: the inter-personal time with counsellors has been reduced by 51 per cent. That is a huge amount.

Guidance counsellors are important. There can be a lot problems facing young people today and often a teacher may express their concern about a student to the guidance counsellor, who can follow it up and deal with it in a professional and caring way. The benefit of the model was that it was a holistic one – meaning that students could present themselves to the guidance counsellor for a whole host of different reasons.

It may occur that there are underlying issues that the counsellor can then begin to tackle with the young person. It is confidential and anonymous, so no one needed to know why you were there. There was no stigma attached with going to visit the counsellor, because you could be visiting about any matter – it could just be that you need help with study skills or a certain a subject.

Continuity of care

Students can often present themselves with a mundane issue but, upon exploration of the matter, counsellors may find that it relates much more to a social or personal issue, like problems at home.  Many of the problems that young people face are not being picked up on because of the cut backs and the shortfall in resources. The problems are then presenting themselves later on when they have become a lot more serious. Often they have to be referred to out of school resources at that point. We should be dealing with the issues early on, so the resources need to be there to do so. Guidance counsellors can provide a continuity of care that the support services of outside agencies cannot.

The Action Plan on Bullying and the Mental Health Guidelines were launched this month. However, they seem to be at odds with what they are doing with guidance counsellors. They are very laudable, but they are totally aspirational as the schools do not have the resources to implement them. The cut-backs are seriously threatening the schools capacity to provide services to children. It is one thing to provide these laudable documents, but if you are not going to provide the resources then it does seem to be a bit of window-dressing unfortunately.

A lot of the outlines in mental health promotion documents were already in place in schools but the schools have been denied the necessary resources to implement these strategies. There has been a reform of the junior cycle, promotion of numeracy and literacy, mental health initiatives and anti-bullying programmes — but to actually get schools to buy into all of that at a time when they are being denied resources to implement them, seems to me to be counter-productive. The mental health initiative mentions the importance of counselling and especially one-to-one counselling, but this is at odds with their cutbacks.

The bottom line is students are suffering

If you want to bring about change you have to get people to buy into it. If you are landing more work on these people, resentment builds. There is also still an expectation from some parents that the same service should be provided. However, guidance counsellors are being made to do other work and teach other classes, while still trying their best to provide a quality service and this is having an impact on their health also. If they are not in good health or they feel stretched, how can we expect them to deliver a quality service to the young people in this country.

Personal counselling needs to be ring-fenced. I can sympathise with school management – they are placed under huge stresses and strains. While the mental health guidelines are a huge step forward and are welcomed, the bottom line is that students are suffering. We should be doing as much as we can — and utilising the resources we can — to see changes are made.

Gerry Flynn is the President of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors.

Read: Cutbacks reduce one-to-one guidance counselling by 50% – study>

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