Don O’Leary: 'Put counsellors and therapists in schools to stop drug use'

“Giving a counsellor the job of dealing with a child’s mental health issues or trauma is wrong. What we need is qualified people in this area.
Don O’Leary: 'Put counsellors and therapists in schools to stop drug use'

Don O’Leary, director of Cork’s Life Centre, sees drugs being used by young people as a way to mask pain and trauma and says: “It’s time we started supporting children.” Picture: Howard Crowdy

PUTTING therapists and counsellors, including those who specialise in the area of substance misuse, into schools could help keep young people out of the criminal justice system, according to a Cork expert on education.

Don O’Leary, director of Cork’s Life Centre, sees drugs being used by young people as a way to mask pain and trauma and says: “It’s time we started supporting children.”

He expressed concern that schools are using guidance counsellors as a one-size-fits-all solution to a range of complex predicaments, including drug use by students.

“A guidance counsellor is taught to give you advice about heading into your career,” Mr O’Leary said.

“Giving a counsellor the job of dealing with a child’s mental health issues or trauma is wrong. What we need is qualified people in this area.

“Kids don’t just go down a bad road. If the right people aren’t giving advice then that’s a serious concern. The drugs are just a way to push down the pain that they are already experiencing every day.

“We have three counsellors/therapists working with us and this has proved hugely successful.”

The Life Centre provides an alternative learning environment for young people in Cork. Photo: Darragh Kane
The Life Centre provides an alternative learning environment for young people in Cork. Photo: Darragh Kane

For decades, the Life Centre has provided an alternative learning environment for many young people in Cork who struggled in the mainstream education system.

In that time, Mr O’Leary has seen the sometimes devastating outcomes when drugs become part of people’s lives and wants to see action taken to reduce lives lost to addiction.

Mr O’Leary is keen to see the focus shift from solutions to prevention. “We are great at looking at things when they have finally reached a crisis point,” he said.

“What we should be doing is trying to fix the issues at an earlier stage.

“Having counsellors and therapists working within our education system would encourage children to deal with their trauma because if we don’t deal with that then we are missing out on something really important.”

Mr O’Leary pointed out that many instead end up in the criminal justice system. 

“We are criminalising young people with problems,” he said.

“Some of the services won’t deal with a dual diagnosis. This means that they won’t deal with a mental health issue if there are drugs involved.

“To me this is crazy because often medication is just used to bury a trauma in the first place. If a child ends up in court after being found with a small amount of cannabis then inevitably what they are being told is that they need to go into treatment.

“In reality, they may not even have an addiction and may have dabbled in drugs to find some way of keeping themselves safe mentally.”

He stressed that the demonisation of children who turn to drugs due to trauma needs to end, with proper support being offered to keep them out of the criminal justice system.

“If a child is sent away from school- most of the time- they will go back to what they were doing before to give them space from what they are going through,” he said.

“There is currently no residential service available for young people dealing with addictions in Cork. 

"It’s time we started supporting children.”

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