Pupils suffering mental health problems in some parts of Scotland can use school-based counselling services while others have to wait several months for help, an investigation by Tes Scotland reveals.
The lack of school-based support in many areas has been partially blamed for many thousands of vulnerable children being left in limbo while they wait for help. Tes Scotland obtained information on school-based counselling from 22 councils, revealing a wide range of approaches.
Some schools employ counsellors or are in areas where councils pay for them. In some areas, every school has its own counsellor, but other regions rely on guidance teachers and council psychologists spread across multiple schools.
Euan Duncan, a guidance teacher and former president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said school counselling was “patchy and needs to be better resourced”.
He added that the Scottish government’s recent Mental Health Strategy was “a step in the right direction” but “did not go far enough in laying out the resources that local authorities and schools need”.
Mr Duncan was also concerned that recent political debate about personal and social education had obscured the fact that PSE “is not counselling ... and will not replace expert mental health practitioners”.
Missed targets ‘not unusual’
Kenny Graham, spokesman for the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition, told a recent Edinburgh conference on mental health in schools that in 2009 only four out of 32 councils offered school-based counselling.
A more recent figure was not available but there had been some improvements, said Mr Graham, who is head of education at Falkland House School in Fife. He added, however, that thousands of referrals to child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) had been rejected, leaving children in limbo due to funding shortages. He contrasted this with Wales, where school counselling is enshrined in law and 86 per cent of pupils do not need referrals to specialist support after five school sessions.
Mr Duncan highlighted Scotland’s target for Camhs to respond to referrals within 18 weeks, but said it was “not unusual for this to be missed”. This resulted in “a substantial period of time when a barrier to learning is not addressed fully”, he said.
Last week, Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson said school-based counsellors should be available to all pupils. She highlighted research by the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) suggesting that one in three children will experience a mental health problem by 16 and that nearly 7,000 children and young people were turned away from Camhs last year.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that the government was reviewing school counselling, referral processes to Camhs, guidance and PSE “to make sure that every child has appropriate access to the right support”.
She added that a mental health link worker was already available to every school.
SAMH has called for comprehensive counselling services to be available in all secondary schools by 2020, warning that Scottish pupils are being left at greater risk of psychological distress.