By Jack Kenward & the Mentally Well Schools Team
I’ve talked to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services ‘til I’m blue in the face, and they’ve talked to me ‘til they’re blue in the face, and my life still stinks.” 1
The above quote, taken from a private conversation with an adolescent in their early teens who had accessed mental health support via their school, may lead us to ask the question: What can psychotherapy or counselling in schools, or individual school counsellors, actually do?
They can’t be expected to change the immediate structural situation of a child or adolescent’s life – that would need social and economic interventions, probably led by government. They can’t be expected to resolve severe and specific psychiatric issues – that would likely require a referral. And with limited time/resources, they can’t be expected to deliver baseline mental health for the whole school, in the way we aim to do with our programmes at Mentally Well Schools.
But there is a huge amount a School Counsellor can do!
The highly regarded UK Charity Place2Be, which provides counselling in schools, states that after one-to-one counselling with Place2Be:
68% of pupils caused fewer problems for the teacher or class, according to teachers
80% of pupils with severe difficulties showed an improvement in wellbeing, according to parents and carers
89% of pupils with the highest level of need show an improvement in wellbeing according to children”2
Jo Holmes, BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) Lead for Children and Young People, predicts a spike in numbers of children needing counselling due to the pandemic, at a time when the BACP have stepped up their campaign for statutory funded counselling in schools in England:
England is lagging behind in its provision of counselling in schools. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have statutory funded school counselling services. England does not.”3
“COVID-19 has magnified existing problems; in others it has prompted new anxieties about the future…. For most, it’s been a period of huge uncertainty and the long-term effects will, I think, be devastating… Intervention by a school counsellor can help, particularly when part of a whole-school approach and working systemically.”4
Place2Be sets out its approach under three headings, each of which we will comment on a little:
“We provide support early to spot mental health problems before they develop and help children cope with challenges throughout their lives
We use an effective therapeutic approach which is backed by research and combines several ways of working
We offer a menu of different services including advice and support for families and school staff”5
The key phrase here is ‘before they develop’. Early intervention as provided by a school counsellor and/or through other methods, is incredibly important, as evidenced in our last blog piece, a guest post by Dr Helen Kelly, in which she challenged The Myth of the Resilient Child.
The UK’s Local Government Association ‘Bright Futures’ campaign states that:
“Over half of all mental ill health disorders start before the age of 14, with 75% by 24 years of age…. Around 75% of young people experiencing a mental health problem are forced to wait so long their condition gets worse or are unable to access any treatment at all.”6
Pre-pandemic figures show that:
Specialist services are turning away one in four of the children referred to them by their GPs or teachers for treatment.
More than 338,000 children were referred to CAMHS in 2017, but less than a third received treatment within the year.”6
The effect of the pandemic will only heighten the demand for state-funded mental health services, and will further exacerbate the shortfall between levels of demand and the available supply of mental health support for children and young people in schools.
Early support and intervention are vital, in the form of counselling in schools as well as a comprehensive school-wide curriculum for mental health. Promoting emotional literacy and understanding of one’s emotions and action urges, as well as learning skills to regulate them, is what we at Mentally Well Schools set out to do with resources such as our Small and Big Emotions worksheet7 and other Free resources7, and even more so through our comprehensive Programmes.8
Effective Therapeutic Approach
There is a huge range of therapeutic and skills-based approaches that can be deployed, ranging from psychoanalytic or systemic approaches, through to cognitive or dialectical behavioural therapies. These may be applied in individual or group settings, and can be used through creative and play activities with children.
Identifying approaches which are backed by research will maximise impact for children and adolescents, so that the counselling/therapy will be more efficacious in improving mental health and life outcomes in the medium and long term. In line with this, our programmes8 at Mentally Well Schools are written using evidence-based psychotherapeutic approaches.
Menu of Different Services
This builds on the foundation of employing an effective therapeutic approach, extending the school counsellor’s scope to families and support for staff.
A key factor here is the capability (especially the availability of resources such as time and funding) to draw down services beyond those which an individual school counsellor can be expected to provide, for example outreach services from the local authority, from charities or from other services such as ours.
The Mentally Well Schools Staff Mental Health & Wellbeing Programme9 coming in January aims to support the mental health of adults within school, in recognition of the extreme demands which many educators are experiencing.
Even if individual school counsellors cannot reasonably be expected to deliver baseline mental health for the whole school, they can act as a valuable focal point for managing that delivery, alongside the school SENDCo/Mental Health Lead. And of course, school counsellors can also act as a useful conduit for referrals for specific and more severe psychiatric issues.
Even if perhaps we have to admit that social and economic interventions are entirely beyond the remit of schools, a school counsellor can help provide early intervention and some effective therapy, as well as a broader range of services where there are resources to do so.
Taken together, this support from a counsellor can help those children most at risk and those staff who are under great pressure, to develop greater resilience through processing challenging thoughts/emotions, learning skills for future use, and allowing them a safe space in which to feel listened to without judgment.
Life might still “stink”, but if a child or adolescent can cope with the stink a bit better, and start to look to a time when life might smell a little bit sweeter, it’s a job well done.
Ultimately the message is, even with budgets so stretched, fight to keep – or get – counselling in schools, and support the work of your School Counsellor!
Jack Kenward is a trained Samaritans Listener and mental health first aider, and has recently taken up the role of Samaritans Regional Education Officer for Wales. Following a career in university management and in consultancy, Jack is now focusing on work related to wellbeing and on his writing. He has a long-standing interest in mental health, and recently created a staff mental health strategy and set up a staff mental health support network for a higher education institution in England.
P.S. If you have any comments in response to Jack’s blog piece, please post below! We’d love to hear your thoughts.
- Early teen child, private conversation.
- Place2Be home page
- BACP School Counselling in England Campaign
- BACP Journal: December 2020 “The Big Issue”
- Our Approach (Place2Be)
- Local.Gov.UK Bright Futures Campaign
- Small and Big Emotions Homework and Free Resources (mentallywellschools.co.uk)
- Our Programmes (mentallywellschools.co.uk)
- Staff Mental Health & Wellbeing Programme (mentallywellschools.co.uk)