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Counselling not a quick fix for trauma and grief

School children are being force fed counselling even when it could be harmful, according to a leading consultant paediatrician at the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

Jennifer Cunningham, community paediatrician with Yorkhill NHS Trust in Glasgow, said: "There is evidence from studies carried out in the United States that counselling can aggravate symptoms in children by focusing attention on a situation they would normally get over and forget."

Addressing a seminar on "talking therapies", Dr Cunningham said: "There is no evidence that counselling does benefit children - or that they will necessarily suffer any ill consequences because of a traumatic event.

"Children don't have the same perspective as adults. They don't look into the future like adults. They can put things behind them more easily than adults."

Yet, she said, it was now commonplace for children to receive counselling through their school after a traumatic event. "In almost all such situations schools are getting counsellors in to work with the children."

In wider society counselling is "so ubiquitous it has become institutionalised. You are going to get it anyway - when you go for an Aids test, or have an abortion or infertility treatment.

"It's on offer even in most trivial of circumstances - such as making financial decisions and other situations previously regarded as a normal part of life."

Ann Dockrell, Scottish representative of the National Association of Bereavement Studies, later told The TESS that post-trauma counselling had "become a bandwagon. We are very much a quick fix generation. But you can't give counselling in the same way you give injections for typhoid.

"You have to find out if it is appropriate for that child. In certain cases counselling can be useful - but I would not want to pathologise grief."

Ms Dockrell also said that when schools are affected by a tragedy "it is often the headteacher who can't cope".

After two Primary 7 pupils from Eastfield Primary in Penicuik died in a warehouse fire last month, Midlothian education, health and social services put in place a network of counselling support.

A council spokesperson said: "Time will tell if it is appropriate. The schools - and many individuals - asked for support and we responded."

In her address to the Science Festival Dr Cunningham was also critical of the "constant mediation" being recommended for relatively minor levels of bullying. "I'm not saying there aren't incidences of serious bullying or cases when help is needed so children can defend themselves."

Dr Cunningham suggested, however, that the definition of bullying was now too wide. This led to constantly seeing children as victims in need of defence and so leaving them ill equipped to cope with "real life".

But Andrew Mellor, author of a study on bullying and principal teacher of guidance at Dalry Secondary in Dumfries and Galloway, said: "There are large numbers of youngsters who can't cope with bullying on their own. Nor can the damage done be predicted - at what point self-esteem is seriously affected or youngsters are driven as far as the edge of suicide."

Some kind of intervention is helpful in about half the cases of bullying, he estimated. But whole school policies which reduce overall levels of bullying are also vital.

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