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It's good to talk confidentially

Stephen Hoare describes one authority's stress counselling service.

Stressed headteachers in Hampshire are being offered immediate access to hospital psychologists via a direct helpline to the Winchester and Eastleigh Healthcare NHS Trust.

Introduced last term, the confidential 24-hour helpline adds to an existing support service through which troubled employees have been offered face-to-face sessions with volunteer counsellors since 1994.

Joining a growing band of LEAs now offering stress counselling, this service is run by medically-qualified counsellors.Hampshire recognises the stressful conditions under which heads are expected to work. Shrinking resources and increased workloads are increasingly taking a toll on headteachers in the form of stress-related illnesses and early retirement. An unprecedented number left the profession last year in Hampshire - many only a few years into their first headship.

Local National Association of Headteachers representative Eric Pilkington said: "It's a very en-lightened move. Stress is far worse than a broken leg. The head is in the loneliest position of all - expected to be like God - coping no matter what the pressures are. When heads are suffering from severe stress they try to put a brave face on it and carry on until they fall apart."

The helpline puts heads in direct contact with a hospital psychology department, bypassing the need for GP referral. A clinical psychologist will return contact within 48 hours and offer an initial appointment within seven days. Return contact may be made either at school or at home and, following on from that, the head can book up to six further sessions. Funded by the local authority, the counselling is free.

Hampshire cannot say how many heads are making use of the service. David Moore, Hampshire health and safety manager, explained: "We simply do not know what the take-up has been and we do not seek any information which could identify individuals. We have been at pains to make sure heads who need to use the service can do so in the strictest confidence.

"If we can support just one head and prevent him or her from leaving then we will have probably saved the money this scheme is costing."

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