There are fears that the Government is failing to act fast enough on one of its key coalition agreement promises, “to pilot counsellors in primary schools”, as those without counsellors struggle to help growing numbers of students with emotional difficulties and mental health issues.
Counsellors are needed in primary and intermediate schools as a matter of urgency, say those who see self-harm, depression and severe anxiety in New Zealand’s Year 1 to 8 children on a daily basis.
“If you wait until high school it’s too late,” says Greer Doidge, Manurewa Intermediate’s deputy principal in charge of pastoral care.
“Where families are dysfunctional, it doesn’t matter if they’re five or 14, sometimes kids need help and it needs to be that specialist help.”
Manurewa is a prime example of why counselling is needed at the pre-secondary level. Until a year ago, the south Auckland intermediate had a long-term counselling programme and employed a qualified counsellor through the New Zealand Association of Counsellors.
It can no longer afford the $94,000 salary required for a good counsellor, Doidge says. In addition, due to staff shortages, the school has been without a fulltime SWiS (social workers in schools) since February, even though as a decile one school it is entitled to one.
But counselling is not a given, and Manurewa is forced to prioritise. “It’s ‘how much money can we afford?’ for what amounts to a small group of children, in comparison to ‘who needs reading books?’”.
A counsellor may have helped at least two students who are currently facing suspension, including one pupil who has severe mental health problems and was violent against other pupils.
But the school lacked the expertise to intervene and prevent the situation, says Doidge.
Cases like those are heartbreaking. “You put so much work into some kids and it’s just that one facet that is not dealt with that can take them completely out of the picture.”
Last year, the school counsellor spent six months working with a student rape victim. Manurewa could not deal with a similar situation now. “You’d just pass it on, maybe to Oranga Tamariki and from there hope that someone will do it.”
This term saw the launch of the first stage of a three-year, $28 million initiative to improve mental health services for primary and intermediate children in quake affected Canterbury and Kaikōura.
But with a “crisis of anxiety” in our schools, including a shocking increase in suicide rates among 12 to 24 year olds and a spike in children with mental health issues generally, educators say there is a desperate need for counsellors at all pre-secondary schools.
“With our rates of suicide and depression, why aren’t we doing something?”
asks Rachel Maitland-Smith, the guidance co-ordinator at Ponsonby Intermediate.
“Different schools are doing different things but it needs to be across the board, not just some schools have it, and other schools don’t have it; it’s quite ad hoc at the moment, I’d like to see that change.
The Ministry of Education stresses it’s in the first year of a three-year programme but would not say if or when the pilot would extend beyond quake affected schools.
A spokeswoman for Associate Minister of Education Tracey Martin says, “The Minister has talked with many educators and is well aware of the challenges that some are facing. She is currently working with the Ministry to determine the most effective way to meet these needs.”
There is no official data on how many pre-secondary schools have counsellors, but records from the NZ Association of Counsellors indicate there are at least 33 registered guidance counsellors working with primaries and an additional 22 working with intermediates.
Many schools also rely on volunteers, often experienced counselling students who are registered teachers. The role is commonly part-time, maybe even just one day a week.
Primary and intermediate teachers “see a huge need for pastoral care and counselling” in their schools, says Dr Margaret Agee, a senior lecturer in counsellor education at the University of Auckland.
“It’s a cliché to say that life has got more complicated but for a lot of young people it has.”
A number of primary teachers take the university’s ‘pastoral care and counselling in schools’ course, alongside postgraduate counselling students.
Not only do these teachers want to be “better equipped” to combat issues like bullying, they also hope to understand some of the external stressors affecting their students – like family breakdowns and high mobility rates – which can lead to children feeling disconnected from their peers, teachers and learning.
“Good teachers want to be able to be effective in helping the students settle and helping students learn, but under the current conditions that’s very difficult,” says Agee, who was the reviewer on the Ministry of Education’s new pastoral care policy document for secondary schools, Te Pakiaka Tangata Strengthening Student Wellbeing for Success.
“The cry from a number of teachers is: we need counsellors to support students in ways that we just don’t have the time or skills to do.”
Maitland-Smith, a former intermediate teacher, went into counselling after seeing “a lot of anxiety, self-harm and depression” among young students. Despite a decade’s teaching experience she still lacked the skills to truly assist them.
“Even though I had a deep desire to want to help, I didn’t actually know how to.”
Teachers are not actually trained, she says, “to be able to go and talk about some of these deeper things”.
Nor are social workers in schools (SWiS), she points out, despite the fact their role is sometimes confused with that of a counsellor’s.
Oranga Tamariki estimates that there are 273 SWiS social workers working across approximately 700 low-decile schools around the country.
Social workers do a lot of important practical work, especially with families, but, says Maitland-Smith, “counsellors offer that longer, deeper change within a person, and they allow a child to fully process something, that’s going on for them.”
Around Ponsonby Intermediate, Maitland-Smith is known as “the helper lady”. She’s on site all the time, and it’s seen as normal to go to her if students have a problem.
Kids describe the counselling room as “a relaxed, chilled out place”. They can play with toys, and Maitland-Smith uses creative strategies like drawing and sand tray therapy.
“Just making things together, and really listening to them, and I think they really respond to that.
“Parents are so busy, teachers are so busy and [the kids] come in and they are completely 100 per cent listened to and respected and amazing things can come out of that.”
Maitland-Smith has noticed a “definite” rise in anxiety and panic attacks within children, particularly in the last two years. She counsels about 80 children a year; almost a fifth of them have serious anxiety issues.
“We’ve had kids not wanting to get out of the car, or not wanting to leave their homes in the morning, and that’s quite big for a parent to deal with, and it’s quite big for a school to deal with, too. If you didn’t have someone who was trained, I’ve got to wonder how that would go.”
There are a lot of reasons why anxiety happens, from chemical to genetic, but, these days, technology “plays a huge part”.
“Kids are not switching off the same, they’re going home and wanting to know all the time what’s happening online. Parents are anxious too and kids model off what they see in their parents.”
Other issues that counsellors deal with include trauma, abuse, grief and loss such as bereavement, as well as divorce and separation.
Anger is a common problem. Counsellors can help get at the root of why this is happening, argues Maitland-Smith, who is also the school’s SENCO (special educational needs co-ordinator).
“We have to understand what’s going on at that deeper level if things are actually going to change. In lots of cases there are kids who are carrying bigger stuff, than what the teacher is seeing maybe.”
Maitland-Smith also works on preventative programmes, covering topics like mindfulness and building resilience, for all students. It’s not “dealing with bottom of the cliff stuff” she says, but addresses certain issues before they become bigger.
Across town, Manurewa Intermediate no longer has the resources to put those sorts of initiatives in place. It is simply “reacting to risk”, says Doidge.
“If you look at things like self-harm, when our other counsellor was here, she was able to work through those issues so it didn’t become bad or suicidal.”
Recently she’s noticed the school needs to help more year sevens, fresh from primary school.
“We’re getting them here a bit rugged, and [previously] we’ve had a counsellor so we are fixing them and they are going on to high school.”
“It’s short-sighted not to think that we need [counsellors] at all stops,” she adds. “If we can right them, and they can get to high school and engage and be stable, and not scared, and be happy then that’s half the battle won.”