Last week, the children’s commissioner for England and Wales, Anne Longfield, called for for all schools to have an NHS-funded counsellor on site to "help address the increase in children’s mental health issues". The announcement followed a study showing that less than one-third of children referred to child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) last year received treatment within 12 months, with 32 per cent still on a waiting list after a year and 37 per cent dismissed after initial assessment.
From my perspective, the announcement was simply common sense. School counsellors are a valuable resource but, in the context of cuts to funding that have left many schools unable to afford basic supplies like textbooks and toilet paper (let alone "little extras"), they are often the first to be sacrificed. I was, therefore, surprised to see the announcement being met with anger and disappointment by many members of the teaching community on social media. Their main concerns fell broadly into four categories:
- School counsellors aren’t a substitute for Camhs or a silver bullet;
- Supplying school counselling is a strategy designed to address symptoms of poor mental health in young people, so effectively absolves policymakers from looking at the root causes;
- Every person who interacts with children should be equipped to have emotional conversations with them – the existence of a school counsellor might prohibit them from developing those skills;
- Many schools have had negative experience with counsellors who aren’t sufficiently qualified or experienced with young people to be effective.
I agree with all of the above and would strongly encourage the government departments of health and education to explore them robustly before implementing any kind of blanket policy. However, I would like to counter with the following, in defence of school counsellors:
1. 'They aren’t a substitute for Camhs'
This statement made by teachers is absolutely correct. However, owing to Camhs' own brutal funding cuts, the thresholds for being eligible have risen dramatically over the past eight years. This has left many children who have needs over and above the emotional support that their teachers or parents could ever reasonably be expected to provide languishing in a no-man’s land, or placed on an indefinite waiting list. School counsellors represent one potential lifeline for such young people.
2. 'They’re for symptoms, not causes'
An NHS counsellor would be an incredibly valuable ally to schools in establishing what the root causes of growing mental ill health actually are and feeding back to teachers. Pupils will often disclose to a counsellor problems that they are unable, for a variety of reasons, to talk to a teacher or parent about. Counsellors generally promise confidentiality, so long as the disclosure is not a safeguarding issue. However, they, as a semi-outsider, are likely to perceive patterns in the issues pupils are coming to them with which teachers, who live and breathe the school environment, might be too embroiled to see clearly.
This becomes doubly handy when you consider the potential usefulness of counsellors in countering the "turkeys never vote for Christmas" argument, which holds that the reason teachers object to increased testing or narrowing of the curriculum is not out of a genuine concern for pupils, but because of the increase it represents to their workload.
3. 'Every adult is a potential source of emotional support to a child'
In utopia, this would be true. However, even the most emotionally literate teachers have so many demands placed on their time that it seems unreasonable to expect them to provide an additional counselling service. Counselling often involves large periods of silence and infinite patience, as you wait for the person you’re counselling to work out the best solution (which you knew from the beginning) themselves, based on you asking the correct series of questions. Whilst many teachers have the knowledge and skills to be able to do this, they probably don’t have the time.
Furthermore, we should never be reliant on one person for all of our emotional needs. When I work with young people, I ask them who they’d speak to if they had a problem. They can always think of one, but fall silent when I ask "and who else?" Ideally, we should all have a network of support, comprising those who are the right person to approach depending on the nature of the issue and our mood/specific need that day. A counsellor should represent one – as opposed to the – option.
4. 'Many schools have a negative experience with counsellors'
I have no doubt that this is the case. However, I would caution in assuming this to be the norm, for a number of reasons. Firstly, you’re far more likely to hear negative stories than positive ones, both online and IRL. This is true with all aspects of the NHS. For every horror story reported in the paper or passed on by a friend, there are hundreds, probably even thousands of people for whom the NHS provided excellent care.
Secondly, it’s really difficult to measure a counsellor’s efficacy. Evidence shows that their competence is based less on their technique and more on the elusive quality of "connection". The more a pupil trusts and likes their counsellor, the more value they will get from the session. Furthermore, they are, in essence, a preventative measure – and how do you prove, for example, that someone was going to self-harm then didn’t?
All of the above arguments against school counsellors are, in my opinion, predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding about what they should do. They aren’t the same as therapists. They aren’t something to be "prescribed" in the same way medicine or CBT are. To see a counsellor, therefore, doesn’t represent the "medicalisation" of what is likely to be an everyday problem.
Ultimately, a counsellor is someone who provides a neutral, safe space for a person to get respite from; where they can articulate and work through possible solutions to whatever it is that ails them. Surely we can all agree that, given consideration to the above provisos, this is something to which every young person should have access.
Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here