My Voice Matters - Child Mental Health Week

by Dr Marilyn McGowan

One day, a nine-year-old boy in counselling turned to me and asked, "Do I have to do homework if I don’t have a home?” The moment formed one of those unforgettable questions in school counselling that I still struggle to answer. Behind this child’s voice lies a powerful and poignant narrative and the action counsellors take in response – or do not take - perhaps determines whether the voice of the child really matters.

Last month, (24th January, 24), the front page headlines of the Independent newspaper in the UK, highlighted that no less than 493,434 children are waiting for mental health treatment from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. Shocking though this, it rather begs the question – where exactly are they waiting? And the answer, more often than not, is in schools. Statistics, nevertheless, do not adequately capture the voice of the child or the work of the school counsellors who are plugging the gaps for some of those waiting children.

My questioning client does not (yet) present as having a mental health problem. If his voice is to matter, maybe I need to pay closer attention to what he is saying. The voice of the child is often mentioned in safeguarding procedures where young people’s views must be considered in decisions which affect them, but for a counsellor listening to young people, voice means so much more. The young client is making a pertinent point about the link between school and those external circumstances that adversely influence his access to education. In the few words of his question, I am party to a child whose Human Rights are being compromised.

Article 28 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) says that “children and young people have the right to education,” but schools are microcosms of the world outside of their gates and inevitable socio-cultural factors influence how, when and if they can achieve that access. Moreover, Article 27 of the UNCRC says that “children and young people should be able to live in a way that helps them reach their full physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social potential.” Any school counsellor will tell you that this young client may be homeless for any number of reasons: his mother may be fleeing domestic violence; a landlord may have sold his property, and the family may not have money for a deposit for a new home; he may be a refugee or a child who has been taken into temporary care as no long term foster home is available. Perhaps the learning from this child’s voice is that behind every mental health problem, there may be a breach of the child’s human rights. This has implications for the mental health discourse and how as counsellors we present and understand the voice of our young clients.

Article 13 states that the child shall have “the right to freedom of expression; to express ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of

art, or through any other media of the child's choice.” As a school counsellor, I wonder if upholding Article 13 best describes what we do in service of the child’s voice that matters. As a profession, we are constantly seeking out new information and forging new understandings to enable our clients’ self-expression and developing resilience.

I think Carl Rogers might agree with this positioning. Rogerian counselling was always political, not only in the action that Rogers took to creating groups working towards resolutions in Northern Ireland and South Africa, but also in the counselling room. For Rogers, the capacity to listen and learn from others was a political act, a deeply held belief that client voices matter and that they have something important to say that we have to hear. Indeed his revolutionary theory of person centred counselling was developed in part from his work with children at Rochester Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

My little client’s quasi satirical statement also reminded me of the absurdity in the contemporary life of schools and the wisdom that a child’s perception can carry. Beset with overwhelming and often unrealistic expectations, how do schools balance learning with the complex range of social justice problems that enter their classrooms? And where do school counsellors fit in that process? I know there are too many school counsellors working for free in converted broom cupboards without heating. Their voices matter too. However, as the mental health agenda becomes more figural in the run up to the election, I notice that the mention of school counsellors is usually overshadowed by talk of the mental health leads and teams in schools and for some other absurd reason, school counsellors are rarely mentioned.

It was almost a year later, when I was crossing the playground and I saw the young boy, no longer a client, skilfully dribbling a ball round his classmates. He saw me and shouted out my name. “Hey”, he yelled, “I’ve got a new home”. I gave him the thumbs up and we both continued on our way.

I couldn’t help but find myself smiling, as I thought to myself, “And I bet he still doesn’t do his homework.”

References

Assembly, UN General. "Convention on the Rights of the Child." United Nations, Treaty Series 1577, no. 3 (1989): 1-23.

Rogers, Carl R. Carl Rogers on personal power. Delacorte, 1977.

NB Case material is anonymised and altered for confidentiality purposes



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