Something wasn’t clicking with Joanne Waddell. Public awareness of mental health had vastly improved in recent years, but the reality of services in schools across Scotland just didn’t match up. So Waddell, a voluntary counsellor in schools, decided to submit a bold petition to the Scottish Parliament calling for all pupils to have access to trained counsellors in school by 2022.
“The more I researched, the more I couldn’t understand why, with all the media reports about declining children’s mental health, there wasn’t the support for children,” she says.
“I just couldn’t understand why it wasn’t being addressed.”
A survey by Tes Scotland (see pages 8-9) of local authorities’ school counselling services – or lack of them – chimes with Waddell’s conclusion that the provision is “still patchy and sporadic, with huge disparity from one region to another”.
She says that some councils and schools are concentrating on building awareness of mental health by inviting in expert speakers, while for others the focus is on providing “mental health first aid” training for staff, perhaps aimed at school nurses or teachers.
“There’s no doubt that schools and local authorities everywhere are really aware of mental health and are doing everything they can, but it seems to me that, without the right funding, this can be a very general promotion of wellbeing,” she says.
Waddell sympathises with teachers and school nurses who do their best to support vulnerable pupils, but points out that there can be “an awful long journey” from having a kindly teacher’s ear to getting the specialist support that is crucial for some children.
Some local authority approaches “are not going to give the child long-term support”, she warns. “There needs to be some national, strategic policy so that every council provides the same support network.”
Councils often cite the role of educational psychologists and, while Waddell considers their service to be “very valuable”, she insists that they should be working alongside school counsellors, not instead of them.
The confidence to confide
Waddell, who volunteers for the Place2Be children’s mental health charity, says: “We give that child regular contact; week after week, we build a picture, we talk them through their problems non-judgementally – they get that support in schools and they get it regularly.
“I think sometimes talking to a teacher can be really difficult [for a child], because a teacher already knows you in the context of your behaviour in school, or, if it’s a small community, might know your parents.
“To be able to come and speak to somebody who’s not connected with any of your external world is really important.”
Waddell believes that, over time, children “develop an incredible confidence with you as a counsellor, they feel more able to tell you things that they wouldn’t tell anybody else” – adding that, for some children, fraught home circumstances mean that confiding in a parent is not an option.
Another motivating factor for her launching the petition was hearing news of some school counselling services in Scotland being stopped, leaving children “without a natural conclusion” to this form of support.
In the worst-case scenarios, she fears, the impact of inadequate or reduced counselling services could be lifelong. Waddell worked as a counsellor for adults before she did so with children, and she invariably found that their problems could be traced back to childhood. With the absence of proper trained support, she explains, children can learn dangerous coping mechanisms that “stay with you your whole life and really get in the way of reaching your own potential”.
“If they had just got the support at the right time, just as things were changing for them, they wouldn’t be where they are, where they might have self-harmed or attempted suicide,” reasons Waddell. “And I’m really heartbroken for them – because I feel that they were failed as young children.”
Joanne Waddell’s petition to the Scottish Parliament closes on 3 September. See bit.ly/CounsellingPetition