Youth Mental Health Day - Reflections on School Counselling

By: Dr Marilyn McGowan

Register for our Networking Event on 30th November

Youth Mental Health Day (YMHD) on 19th September is all about young people’s emotional well-being.  It encourages understanding and discussion of mental health in young people, enabling them to live happy and healthy lives all year round. Each year, the day aims to get young people, and those who support them, talking about how to improve mental health. This year’s theme is #BeBrave and focuses on helping to give young people the courage and confidence they need to achieve their goals and ambitions, and be the best version of themselves they can be.

Here at Iron Mill College, we support that commitment through our training and development for counselling young people and families in Poole College. An increasing number of our students are expressing interest in school counselling and this year, we are offering school therapists a series of online seminars and opportunities to get together. School Counselling is now the most prevalent source of mental health provision in the UK for young people1, generally free to pupils at the point of access. Counselling in schools takes away stigma around mental health and alters perceptions about the need to ask for help. As more pupils hear from and see their peers attending counselling, it becomes part of everyday school life, a universal provision for all pupils in the school. However, on You

th Mental Health Day, it seems important to remember that school counselling is also a worldwide, universal mental health provision and here at IMC, we would like to take this opportunity to reflect on other school counsellors in other parts of the world and extend our best wishes for their continued success in their own country.

A quick trawl of international websites related to school counselling associations, raised some interesting perspectives on our profession. I could not but start with the young voice of a counselling client describing their experience of school counselling in New Zealand2:    

My special place is Whaea B’s office because you get to play with a lot of stuff, like play with toys and sand or even animals and listen to music and it is awesome. I like her funky furniture… Every week I go there and talk about stuff that’s happening... This place makes me feel good. 

These are words from ākonga, the Maori word for student. Many school counsellors will recognise them, whatever country they work in, the appreciative sentiments from a young client for a safe and comforting place. It’s this understanding and valuing of the process that makes school counselling one of the most rewarding jobs in the world. Although every secondary school in New Zealand has a school counsellor, this quote was taken from a primary school initiative started in 2021 to help Maori disadvantaged children in schools where Maori culture and values are now embedded.  The plight of intergenerational on displaced children has been highlighted by UNICEF3:

Disproportionately more Māori children are taken away from their whānau and placed into state care. Considering how much these young people love and care about their whānau, it is heartbreaking to know how difficult it must be for those who have had them stripped away, isolated and misplaced. 

In New Zealand, this Counselling Project funds around 200 schools over four years to bring in local community counselling support for their ākonga, and to support the care efforts of teachers and inclusion workers. I admire the optimism and faith of these counsellors:

The way we come together for our ākonga means everything to them. They’ll remember — and they’ll reward us with their trust, courage, talent, tenacity and spirit.

Here in the UK, we have different histories but there are still over 57,000 children living away from their birth homes. Many of them find their way into school counselling. We have no such funded community school counselling project, and we are still campaigning for a paid counsellor in every secondary school, but we do share the commitment to social justice and faith that life can be better for our looked after young people.

The American School Counsellor Association 4cites school counselling as 100 years old and notes how school counselling has evolved from a position to a service, to a programme. Their website provides fascinating insight into how a programme of school counselling can develop with a strong emphasis on outcomes and professionalisation. They take an active role in school leadership and are integral to the school system, offering a holistic approach and wide range of activities and resources to improve resilience in students. In perusing the ASCA site, I could easily recognise the work of some school-based counsellors in the UK who move beyond their counselling rooms and offer wider services to the school and how well received these services are. We are lucky not to need some of their crises resources related to shootings and floods but even her in the UK, trauma informed practice is becoming a key part of education.

Like many counsellors in UK secondary schools, counsellors in America limit their work to short term counselling, although we fall very short of their recommendation of one counsellor to 250 pupils. I am left wondering if school counselling in the UK might not develop along similar lines given the recent SCoPeD recommendations to develop the profession. All school counsellors in ASCA have Masters Level entry qualifications!  

I was also intrigued to hear that every year the American School Counsellor Association sponsors a National School Counselling Week to “focus public attention on the unique contribution of school counsellors within U.S. school systems.” What a great idea!

Another good idea and model for supervision, training and support of school counsellors came from the International School Counselor Association5 founded in 2010 to support counsellors working in schools abroad. They call their support meetings  Counseling Consultation Circles, a creative space for school counsellors to receive group supervision and training. The focus on group supervision also seemed a good way to ease the isolation of many school counsellors. As a supervisor myself, I liked their format of every meeting allocating time for celebrating success stories, offering training, case presentations, reflections and then follow up circulation of resources arising from their circle time.

Finally, in my searching of other school counselling associations, I happened upon this poem produced by and published in a document from the African Association for Counselling and Pastoral Care6. Faced with intercultural problems in South Africa, they talk of narrative therapy as a need to rewrite history and autobiography. This poem is by black South African Oswold Mbuyiseni Mtshali:

WALLS

Man is a great wall builder
The Berlin Wall
The Wailing Wall of Jerusalem
But the wall
most impregnable
Has a moat
flowing with fright
around his heart
A wall without windows
for the spirit to breeze through
A wall without a door
for love to walk in.

Here in the UK, we often bemoan the lack of rooms with soundproofed walls for counselling, but thank you for this poem, which reminds me, that as school counsellors wherever we are based in the world, we seem to all  have the doors and windows to welcome our clients and without walls, we can also recognise the contribution each country makes to school counselling and young people on Youth Mental Health Day.

 

References

1.Finning, K., White, J., Toth, K. et al. Longer-term effects of school-based counselling in UK primary schools. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry 31, 1591–1599 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-021-01802-w

2.https://www.education.govt.nz/our-work/changes-in-education/counselling-in-schools/

3.https://www.unicef.org.nz/stories/what-its-like-to-be-a-maori-child

4.https://www.schoolcounselor.org/

5.https://iscainfo.com/

6. https://asps-africa.com/

 



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