The snowball effect


13 December 2021

The past two years have seen unprecedented challenges to the wellbeing of Australia’s children. Droughts, bushfires and lockdowns have followed hard on each other’s heels, and the results have played out in the classroom – or on the other side of the computer screen.

The AEU is calling for more psychologists and qualified counsellors in schools to offer on-the-ground support to students and their teachers, tackle the early signs of poor mental health and provide a pathway for those that need help. In short, to stop the snowball effect.

The need was clear even before the natural disasters and pandemic lockdowns put a new focus on mental health.

The Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing in 2015 found that about one in seven children aged between four and 17 will experience a mental health issue in any one year. Psychologists know that half of all mental disorders begin before the age of 14.

The toll includes two young lives lost each week to suicide – 100 under-17s in 2018 and 96 in 2019. In 2019, 19 children aged 14 or younger took their own lives.

“Teachers are reporting that they’re dealing with very serious mental health issues among students, particularly since COVID-19,” AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe says. “We have a cohort of students who are at risk of disengagement from their education. We have students impacted by isolation caused by lockdown. There are considerable mental health concerns that I don’t think have been addressed properly.”

Need for prevention programs

The Australian Psychological Society (APS) calls for one fully funded school psychologist for every 500 students.

APS president Tamara Cavenett says this would allow the provision of holistic, integrated services that combine prevention, intervention and referral. They would also be a source of specialist knowledge and advice for the school’s teaching and support staff.

“One psychologist for 500 children would allow children to be seen earlier and have targeted programs in place. Some of these programs would deliver whole-school mental-health programs; we can run body-image programs and anti-anxiety programs that target the whole school.

“There would be the chance to run prevention programs as well as having somewhere teachers can go when they’re struggling to manage children’s behaviour and access some of the principles that psychology has at its base.

“It allows for a child to be seen and allows us to intervene early, one-on-one. Does the child need a referral and potentially sit on a waiting list, or could the psychologist intervene in the school and in a few sessions work with the entire surrounding environment of the child?”

In particular, siting the service in school allows counsellors and teaching and support staff to work within the student’s social setting, with their friends, peers and parents.

The importance of this was underlined in June by the release of the latest report by UNICEF Australia’s Young Ambassador program on the wellbeing of young people, Children in a Changing World.

Schools key to mental health service delivery

It identified the separation of mental health services from school settings as a significant barrier to access and called for a more holistic system that involved young people in its design and delivery to ensure it was “relevant, accessible, strengths-based and destigmatising”.

Young Ambassador for Melbourne Frank Hooper says the clinical settings of mental health services and their detachment from the school community created a stigma around mental ill-health. “[It] takes courage for young people to access, due to stigma, especially in smaller communities,” he says. Even then, there can be long waiting times, and students can find themselves seeing a different counsellor at each appointment.

“Easy-to-access mental health resources designed for children and young people would really help them navigate day-to-day challenges,” says Hooper.

UNICEF Australia has surveyed young people aged 13–17 about their ability to cope. The most recent survey, conducted in December and January, found they were bouncing back from the early days of the pandemic, but 10 per cent still rated their ability to cope as “poor or very poor” – and that was before the mid-winter lockdowns.

More importantly, even before the pandemic, this figure had been 4 per cent – which across all school age students would equate to some 160,000 children and young people.

“The mental health system was already under pressure before the bushfires and pandemic hit,” Cavenett says. “Services have been operating beyond demand for some time.”

Haythorpe says the need is one more reason why government schools must be fully funded now to the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS), as the AEU’s Every School Every Child campaign urges. Under the Coalition government’s timetable, 99 per cent of public schools will be below the SRS by 2023.

This year’s federal budget included $2.3 billion for mental health services and programs, although there was no mention of schools.

The federal government’s National Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy, launched in October, highlights the importance of education settings as the “ideal environment to build resilience, support and empower parents and carers, and identify and intervene early in emerging mental health issues.” It notes they provide a “relatively universal, non-stigmatising environment where children can be observed for long periods in multiple contexts”.

But, while it supports wellbeing programs, training for educators, and designated wellbeing coordinators, it stops short of recommending psychologists in situ. Cavenett warns that could lead to a lack of joined-up services and – worse – teachers recognising student ill-health but having nowhere to refer them.

Some states and territories have been stepping up. Victoria – which ran its own Royal Commission into mental health services – is trialling the use of mental health and wellbeing coordinators in schools. Educators say it has helped break down the stigma around mental health and given teachers new tools to help students.

Mental health charity Beyond Blue is also providing important support materials and networking opportunities for educators, through its new platform Be You. Haythorpe welcomes the initiative, but says it doesn’t resolve the problem.

“We need a properly qualified school counsellor in every school in the country,” Haythorpe says.

By Nic Barnard

This Article was originally published in the Australian Educator, Summer 2021