Six-year-olds struggling with suicidal thoughts

Children as young as six are having suicidal thoughts of self-harming in primary schools that depend on ad hoc unofficial counselling services to support them.

The patterns emerge from a significant study of principals and school counsellors that has led to recommendations for in-school counselling for children in primary schools in line with international best practice.

Rosaleen McElvaney, a psychologist at Dublin City University’s school of nursing and human sciences, led the research in which 1,282 primary principals completed an online questionnaire. A further 12 were interviewed, as were nine counsellors who work with schools through local arrangements that are mainly focused in urban areas and arranged where professionals contact schools directly themselves.

One principal had seen suicidal ideations in pupils as young as seven, but also in one aged six. The study found 28% of principals had noted self-harm as an issue in their schools, and 23% referred to suicidal ideation.

Family problems are the most common issues for primary school children, identified by 85% of principals, with 79% seeing separation, divorce or marital breakdown as issues among their pupils. Ms McElvaney and her co-authors recommend school-based counselling should be family focused.

Anxiety issues were reported by nearly 80% of principals, followed by bullying (54%), including cyber-bullying (39%), depression (28%), eating disorders (15%), and sexual identity issues (9%).

Nearly three quarters said they would use the Department of Education’s National Educational Psychological Service if a child has more difficult emotional issues than staff can handle, and one in five would consult an external therapist or counsellor. However, the report said a limited provision of school-based counselling is accessed and funded on an ad-hoc basis.

The findings support the argument for school-based counselling allowing ease of access for children and parents, de-stigmatising the experience of attending counselling, and add to the growing body of evidence for the association between school-based counselling and significant reductions in psychological distress,” said the report.

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