'I fear the widespread disposing of school counsellors will prove to be a false economy'

20th December 2016 at 10:24
Natasha devon
School counsellors provide the help teachers need to support growing numbers of children with emotional and mental health needs who would otherwise fly under CAMHS’ radar, writes the former mental health tsar

So many bizarre political decisions have occurred in 2016 that it would be downright egotistical of me to suggest that the government hiring me as their mental health champion (then firing me for championing mental health too much) even qualifies for the top twenty.

However, from a personal perspective, my nine months attempting to navigate the endless absurdities of Whitehall did give me an insight into why everything might be so hickledy pickedly, right now.

After all, to paraphrase Russell Brand, if they’re prepared to go to such farcical lengths to silence someone as insignificant as me, imagine what they’re doing with war and oil and other contentious things of national importance.

Looking back, the most baffling aspect of the mental health champion position, was that there was an expectation placed upon me to "plug" government initiatives in the media, without having been privy to full details of what they actually were.

When I asked to be included in meetings, or to have sight of the relevant papers, emails obtained via my subsequent Subject Access request showed the DfE thought me impertinent. “I don’t think this is appropriate, to be honest,” said one piece of correspondence in relation to a request I’d made to be included in a meeting about pilot schemes to bring child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) workers into schools.

As such, I still cannot tell you how the "30 random" areas of the UK which were selected for the scheme, which places a CAMHS worker on school sites and makes them the nominated point of contact for teachers needing advice on pupil mental health, were chosen.

Equally, although I heard rumours that the scheme was causing "friction" between teachers and CAMHS workers, I cannot tell you anything about the scheme’s efficacy. What I can tell you is that it is no substitute for school counsellors.

Earlier this year, I wrote about a school who, owing to budget restraints, decided to dispense with the services of its counsellor (and ill-advisedly replaced her with peer mentors). Just this weekend Vic Goddard (of Channel 4's Educating Essex fame) tweeted that his school, Passmores Academy in Harlow, had to make the same decision, despite recognising the value their counsellor had brought.

In a meeting with NHS England during my time as mental health champion I was told that there was a widely-held suspicion about school counsellors, since there was ‘no way’ to quality check them.

I was also told that in "their experience" school counsellors tend to "overestimate" the impact they have had on pupil wellbeing.

Furthermore, later during a presentation by the Anna Freud Centre, who co-created the government CAMHS scheme, school counsellors were similarly dismissed because the interventions they practised were not "evidence-based".

In September 2017, I will have been visiting schools for a decade. Today I’m in a minimum of three schools per week, across all sectors, UK-wide. And despite protestations to the contrary from certain government representatives and vociferous social media users, my experience does qualify as a kind of expertise.

I might not be able to "prove" it with a pie chart and a bunson burner, but I can say with some confidence that school counsellors play a vital role in mental health care for pupils.

Pupils tell me that there isn’t the stigma there once was about booking an appointment with the school counsellor, that around half the year group have done it and the general consensus is that it’s for when they need a chat with an impartial person.

Now, it would be remiss of me to suggest that there aren’t examples of school counsellors overestimating their own effectiveness, or that people offering their services who are poorly qualified to do so don’t exist.

But I also refuse to believe that the powers that be, lack the resources or imagination to find a way to ensure all school counsellors are quality checked and members of a central, regulating body.

Counsellors aren’t the same as therapists. They can’t diagnose or prescribe, but, unlike peer mentors, they are extensively trained in early symptom spotting and signposting to appropriate further support, if needed.

Furthermore, the remit of CAMHS is incredibly specific – not every pupil who is struggling emotionally would or should qualify for the services that CAMHS provide.

And (owing to vast cuts since 2010) CAMHS are increasingly stretched, meaning their thresholds are becoming ever-higher. Teachers need qualified help to support the growing number of children with emotional and mental health needs who would otherwise fly under CAMHS’ radar. This is exactly the sort of help school counsellors can provide.

It’s also worth noting that one of the only things known with absolute, concrete certainty in psychology is that your chances of recovery from mental health problems increase significantly if you have a good relationship with the person providing your care. You can have all the evidence-based therapy techniques in the world, but if the person providing them has failed to establish trust, they’re not going to work.

It can take months or even years to establish that kind of trust so suddenly replacing a trusted counsellor with a stranger from the local authority has all kinds of potential negative consequences.

Whether it’s conscious or not, it’s easy to see the agenda, here. School budgets are becoming tighter, meaning school leaders need to make difficult decisions.

Through a combination of enthusiastic directives on the merits of peer mentoring and negative whispers about counselling services, schools are being persuaded that their counsellors are an unnecessary expense.

Unfortunately, mental health isn’t that simple.

In an ideal world, schools would provide a range of services to weave together a web of mental health support through which no child can fall. Counsellors are a necessary part of that and I fear the widespread disposing of the valuable support they provide may prove to be a false economy.

Natasha Devon is the former UK government mental health champion for schools and founder of the Body Gossip Education Programme and the Self-Esteem Team. She tweets as @NatashaDevonMBE

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