Mental health guidelines for schools ‘need backup’

School groups and mental health agencies say new guidelines to help schools promote positive mental health and prevent suicide will only be effective if they are backed up with proper training and resources.

Mental health guidelines for schools ‘need backup’

The guidelines offer second-level schools clear structures on how to cater for mental health promotion among all students. But with one in 10 children and teenagers experiencing mental health difficulties, they are also being advised on how to support those with signs of difficulties and students who need more immediate help from outside services.

While most schools will already have such systems in place, they will now be required to make them part of clear policies.

However, the emphasis on the role to be taken by all staff has drawn criticism from school managers and guidance counsellors because of cuts to supports in second-level schools.

Minister of State for mental health Kathleen Lynch, who launched the guidelines with Education Minister Ruairi Quinn, said it is not good enough that these issues are considered the job of guidance counsellors alone. She said teachers, caretakers, cleaners, and other staff need to be available for young people who need to talk about problems.

She said: “It’s a whole-of-school approach, when someone is in distress the person that they turn to has [to have] the capacity to recognise the signs and point them in the right direction.”

The Institute of Guidance Counsellors said its ability to offer students one-to-one support has been halved since cuts to school staffing last September that require most of them to spend more time teaching.

“A parent may notice their child’s arm is broken, that does not mean you don’t have to take him to the doctor. The guidance counsellor is qualified and certified whereas the classroom teacher is overworked and not an expert in counselling or therapeutic intervention,” the institute said yesterday.

The HSE’s National Office of Suicide Prevention developed the guidelines with the Department of Education’s National Educational Psychological Serv-ice after consulting students, parents, guidance counsellors, and mental health and youth groups.

As well as guidance counselling cuts, schools say the pastoral care they offer has been reduced by a middle-management promotions ban that has left many without year-head teachers for hundreds of students.

Headstrong, the national centre for youth mental health, said the systems being suggested in schools should build the network of supports young people have identified as needing.

Colm O’Gorman, chair of the Children’s Mental Health Coalition, said the cross-departmental response is welcomed. But, he said, ensuring they translate into action is a long way off without a clear implementation plan.

Guidelines

What guidelines tell schools:

School support for all

*Involve young people and parents in forming and following mental health and health promotion policies.

*Allow students to enhance their coping, communication, and conflict-resolution skills with well-planned social, personal, and health education (SPHE) and relationships and sexuality education (RSE) programmes.

*Have systems to support early identification of learning, social, emotional, or behavioural difficulties.

*Support and encourage young people to take part in extra-curricular activities.

*Give students and staff easy access to information about supports.

*Allow staff access to training on promotion of young people’s mental health.

School support for some

Where concerns emerge about a person’s welfare, staff should:

*Listen and talk with the young person.

*Liaise with school management and relevant staff.

*Consult with parents and share detailed information about issues of concern.

School support for a few

Where a young person has mental health concerns outside the school’s capacity to provide support, it should:

*Refer directly to an external service if it already has its own guidelines for such cases;

*Or, with parental consent, refer the young person to local GP, for initial assessment and advice.

If there is concern in relation to suicide:

*Trusted staff should ask questions to allow the person talk about his or her feelings and thoughts.

*Maybe ask if they have considered suicide, and help the young person feel his or her cry for help has been heard.

*If they have been thinking about self-harm or suicide, this should be explored by an appropriately trained member of staff.

*If there is concern about suicidal ideation or self-harm, an emergency referral to GP may be necessary.

*Parents/guardians should be contacted immediately.

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