We are Jeopardising the Mental Health of Future Generations (Part 2)

The first part of this post addressed the growing crisis in the mental health of young people in the UK. This post offers suggestions about what the government should be doing to help children and adolescents and then how counselling in schools should be approached.

We all have a responsibility to protect and help give a voice to young people. With the worsening of the mental health of so many children it should be a combined effort from all education professionals, and anyone else who cares, to try to bring to the attention of the government their huge failure and apparent lack of interest in protecting and caring for the mental health of the next generation. This lack of compassion is affecting our children and we risk a massive adult crisis in mental health with people less able to cope in families and in employment.

What Should the Government Do?

  • Show their commitment to counselling and the emotional health of children and young people by pouring more money into support services instead of making continual financial cuts in this area. Investing more money in programmes like ‘Sure Start’ would prevent much more having to be spent later in life when the situation reaches crisis point.
  • Provide funds for counselling in every secondary school in the UK. At the moment only the Welsh and Northern Irish governments have had the foresight to do this.
  • Provide counselling in every primary school. Extending the service to all schools would do a lot to prevent existing issues in children’s lives deteriorating further at the transition to secondary school and the added pressures of adolescence. 
  • Completely restructure Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) as it is not fit for purpose. The lack of mental health resources for children in the UK is scandalous and is reducing all the time. 28% of referrals for children’s mental health are turned away and countless others are on a waiting list for months. I have lost count in recent years of the number of young people and their families who have been let down by the lack of resources and denied access to the support systems they urgently needed. This has serious repercussions in their education and mental wellbeing and often condemns young people for life.
  • Listen to children and young people. For example, the stark finding from an inquiry by the Children’s Commissioner’s Office published in 2015 showed that the voices of child victims of sexual abuse within the family environment are largely absent despite the many years of research and thousands of papers published.
  • Listen to the specialists, from social workers, health professionals, teachers, counsellors, parents and in fact anyone who is in daily contact with children and adolescents.


We can all listen to children and be more alert to what is behind the difficult behaviour, depression or frequent absenteeism. It would be a start if all schools pushed for a counselling service and it was routinely seen as an essential part of the emotional support network for pupils within the school.

What Makes Counselling in Schools Work?

Clear Contract

Firstly, it is important for both the counselling service and the school to understand clearly what is expected from each other and for these expectations to be clearly stated in the kind of contract agreed upon.

The counselling service works best when it is safe, independent, accessible, of a high standard and seeks to respond to the diversity of issues and challenges faced by young people today. Furthermore, there needs to be recognition that the school and counselling service have equal responsibility for the smooth running of the service from the time of contract and on an ongoing basis.

Although school counselling always adheres to standard ethical guidelines and national child safeguarding procedures, the actual delivery can vary depending on the needs of particular schools, and other considerations such as whether the counsellor works for an agency or is employed by the school. If not carefully negotiated this can lead to misunderstandings as to the counsellor’s role within the school.

Confidentiality

Confidentiality is a key aspect of therapeutic work in providing space for the pupil to explore different issues and make choices for themselves in an atmosphere of privacy and trust.   However, the strict boundaries of counselling confidentiality may be unfamiliar to school staff, who may work much more on the basis of an inclusive, team-based approach towards sharing information, either between themselves or with parents.

It can be wrongly assumed that parents have a right, firstly, to give or withhold consent to their child having counselling in school and, secondly, to know of the content of such counselling.   This though is in direct conflict with the Gillick competency (1985) and the later Fraser guidelines which afford confidentiality to young people under 16 of “sufficient understanding”.

 

Problems in maintaining confidentiality are rare where mutual goodwill, trust and respect exist between counsellor and school staff, between parents and the school and where pastoral care is aware of and sensitive to the rights and responsibilities of all parties involved.

The safeguarding and protection of children is the guiding principle, taking into account, however, their right to privacy and confidentiality as part of any decisions made regarding disclosures.

The counsellor is often in a difficult position trying to protect the rights of the young person but well understanding the pressure schools are under. Resentment can build up, not least when teachers themselves feel overworked and sometimes unsupported and it is hard to accept that a pupil who keeps disrupting the class has, as they see it, the luxury of one-to-one counselling. 

Safe Environment

School is often the safest place for many children experiencing difficult family backgrounds. Therefore, it is a perfect place to provide a counselling service. It is also an opportunity for children to access the service who would not normally have that opportunity and may have most need.

At its best counselling can offer a quiet one-to-one space to be heard, where hopefully a child can trust enough to disclose their worst abuses or fears.   This can be offered within school which is already a known safe environment for most children.

Effective School Link

Counselling works best when there is a strong and active link person (often a pastoral team member) who meets and liaises on a regular basis with the counsellor to discuss all aspects of the running of the counselling service including safeguarding and child protection issues. He/she is aware of who is attending counselling, but otherwise respects the confidentiality on the issues and content raised in the sessions.

The link member of staff needs to understand and genuinely believe in the benefits of counselling for the pupils and the school in general. He/she is someone who sees counselling as a valuable asset in the emotional support of pupils within the school. It is important they convey this to other staff.

Hopefully also, they will have the active commitment from senior management, who encourage teachers to refer pupils to the service.   In my experience this then filters through the whole school and ultimately to the pupils who then view counselling in a positive light.

If the link member of staff is not committed to the counselling service (constantly cancelling meetings or failing to promote the service to other staff, parents and pupils), no matter how hard the counsellor tries the service will fail. The lack of enthusiasm will filter through the whole school, there will be fewer referrals and the pupils will get the message that the service is not valued and ultimately that their emotional welfare is unimportant.

Designated Space

A special room designated for counselling on the days the counsellor attends is very important for the smooth running of the service. The pupils don’t have the anxiety of not knowing where to go and thus jeopardising confidentiality, and it shows that the school values the pupils’ emotional wellbeing as well as the counselling service. It provides consistency and reduces the possibility of mirroring the chaos in many young people’s lives.

Promotion and Communication

Promoting the service within school is an ongoing task and the responsibility of both the school and the counsellor. Pupils should have the opportunity of putting a face to the counsellor, as it is a very big step for a young person to trust a stranger with their innermost fears.  Yet ultimately it can be very empowering for a young person to confide with someone they don’t know without fear of hurting or causing problems with those they know or love.

Other problems can arise when counsellors have a dual role within the school. For example providing a counselling service for members of staff as well as pupils. Or a counsellor is asked to work with small groups on particular issues such as bullying with year 8 pupils, which might also include those already receiving individual counselling. There is potential for boundary and confidentiality conflicts which can cause pupils to have a lack of trust in the counsellor.

At the moment we are condemning evermore young people who are often unable to engage at school and are becoming increasingly stressed and unhappy in all areas of their lives. The UK consistently comes towards the bottom of UNICEF’s rankings of child wellbeing in the 21 most economically advanced countries. Top of the list are the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Maybe we have something to learn from them?

The first part of this post can be found here.

 

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