Richard Bruton’s student wellbeing plan ‘risks being sticking plaster’

Education Minister Richard Bruton

By Niall Murray, Education Correspondent

A new policy to deal with mental health issues in schools risks being a sticking-plaster solution unless therapists are put in place, a leading educationalist has said.

Dublin City University associate professor of education (psychology) Paul Downes described the Department of Education wellbeing policy for 2018 to 2023 as being largely a repackaging of policy operating in second-level schools for the past decade.

Published recently by Education Minister Richard Bruton, the policy sets out how schools should provide for general wellbeing of pupils, as well as dealing with issues arising as young people face mental health challenges.

Prof Downes said that the expectation that schools would have sensory gardens and safe rooms or other spaces for distressed or anxious students is an important development for schools’ physical infrastructure.

But while recognition of the need for school-based supports for pupils experiencing anxiety is welcome, he said it is belated and long overdue.

It is an area we are playing ‘catch up’ in compared with many European countries,” said Prof Downes, whose research expertise deals largely with student mental health and wellbeing.

He said staffing aspects of the policy appear to be highly questionable, having an emphasis on universal supports and programmes in schools.

While there is an expectation that a student can access one-to-one meetings with qualified staff during a personal crisis, the policy advocates allocating a teacher or other school employee as a ‘one good adult’ to guide students through a difficult time.

Prof Downes said the plan is weak on targeted supports for students experiencing moderate risk and chronic levels of need.

“Putting a teacher in the role of ‘one good adult’ for students is not an adequate substitute for qualified emotional counsellors or therapists in and around schools,” he said.

Many students will not wish to confide highly personal issues to a teacher, even assuming adequate confidentiality policies are in place in schools,” said Prof Downes.

The Institute of Guidance Counsellors has already qualified its welcome for the plan with a warning that its members are best placed and the only qualified second-level staff to deal with situations where students have mental health challenges.

Prof Downes said directing students to largely underfunded external services appears to be a substitute for substantial investment in emotional counsellors, play and art therapists, or others to work in or link with schools.

“The apparent lack of commitment to fund multi-disciplinary supports in and around schools for emotional and wellbeing issues, including for anxiety-related issues, means this national policy risks being merely a sticking plaster,” said Prof Downes.

In June, his colleagues in Dublin City University’s School of Nursing and Human Sciences made a call for in-school counselling services to be urgently provided at primary level.

Their survey of almost 1,300 principals found that staff were not qualified or trained to deal with a growing range of anxiety and other issues emerging in young pupils.

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