IRELAND is experiencing rising rates of emotional distress in children and young people, as well an increase in prescribed medication in order to cope. Our society is faced with a significant challenge, and we need to respond to this mental health crisis in a more appropriate and holistic manner — for the sake of our children.
As Chief Executive of the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (IACP) I am increasingly aware of the need for more joined-up thinking, and more collaboration at Government level, when it comes to our school-going children’s mental health. There is a limited school-based counselling provision currently available in Ireland. Unfortunately, while in place in some schools, it is quite fragmented, and operates on an ad-hoc basis. We need to have a level playing field across the country, with all children, and young people, having access to counselling services within their schools — this should be non-negotiable.
At the recent National Policy Forum’s seminar about the provision of mental health care for Irish children, a number of key issues of concern were highlighted. Senator Joan Freeman drew attenton to the fact that Irish 11 to 15 year olds are the second highest in Europe to present with emotional issues, on a weekly basis. She called for ‘care underneath’ so that children are much less likely to end up in crisis care. This policy would involve the use of ‘talking therapies’ such as counselling and psychotherapy.
This approach is also backed up by those in education. Patsy McCaughey, deputy Principal at the High School in Dublin, a qualified Educational Psychologist, emphasised the absence of a coordinated, and inclusive, approach to mental health within schools. Furthermore, he underlined that this is the most obvious place to implement such programmes. It is in schools that most change can occur. He outlined a recent report from the UK outlining that counselling within secondary schools has been shown to bring about significant reductions in psychological distress in the short-term, and help young people move towards their personal goals (UK Department of Education, 2015: Counselling in Schools — a Blueprint for the Future).
My own presentation at this Forum fully supported the views and sentiments expressed by both Senator Freeman, and Patsy Mc Caughey, pointing out that it is this early intervention approach in our schools that IACP, the largest representative body for counselling and psychotherapy in Ireland, is seeking to implement. This approach has been shown to be a highly effective support for troubled children who are experiencing emotional health difficulties. School-based counselling is a professional activity, delivered by qualified counsellors and psychotherapists. Counsellors offer troubled and/or distressed children and young people an opportunity to explore and understand their difficulties within a relationship of agreed confidentiality.
In a Royal College of Surgeons Ireland research report — ‘The Mental Health of Young People in Ireland’ (2013) — it is believed that by the age of 13, one in three children will have experienced a mental health difficulty. By the age of 24, this will have risen to one in two.
These are shocking statistics which demonstrate that, for families of three children (or more), there is a high likelihood that at least one of those children will, at some point, present with a mental health difficulty, by the young age of 13.
We must listen to the voices of our children and hear how they wish to be supported in dealing with any emotional and mental difficulties they are experiencing.
A recent study entitled ‘It just doesn’t feel right’: a mixed methods study of help-seeking in Irish schools, found that help-seeking in schools is uncommon, due to pupils’ concerns about confidentiality, and the dual role of the class teacher also being the counsellor. There were similar concerns with school guidance counsellors, as they are also seen as ‘staff’.
The study found that if mental health, and seeking help, were to be ‘normalised’ in the school setting, along with targeted mental health promotion inputs, that help-seeking would be viewed as less stigmatising, and its rates would increase.
What exemplifies all of this is that school-going children across the country are themselves calling for increased mental health education, as part of their curriculum.
They want, and need, access to independent, non-staff, counsellors and psychotherapists.
It is the deeply held view of the IACP that if the Government listens to the voices of our children and acts accordingly we can pro-actively address the significant mental health challenges facing today’s children who will become tomorrow’s adults.