School stresses take toll on counsellors

Last updated 05:00 20/06/2013

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Two counsellors have taken legal action against a Hamilton school, claiming the high number of student suicides and deaths left them suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ronald and Kathleen Cronin-Lampe raised personal grievances with their employer, Melville High School, in the Employment Relations Authority in January last year.

But while the Authority ruled against the pair in a decision released yesterday, the case has helped to highlight the growing pressure on counsellors to cope with a "huge demand" for their services, which is putting student safety and their own wellbeing at risk.

The couple, who have 29 days to appeal the decision, were required to deal with a high number of student suicides and attempted suicides, as well as deaths within the school community and "other traumatic events" between 1997 and 2011.

"That strain was plainly overwhelming and it is difficult to see how anyone could have coped with those tragic events," the decision said.

The pair suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, or a similar psychiatric illness, as a result of their work and felt there was a lack of support from higher up.

They alleged that they were unjustifiably disadvantaged in their jobs, saying the school failed to provide a safe workplace, breached its health and safety obligations and caused them "significant emotional damage", limiting their future work opportunities.

The Cronin-Lampes said they were expected to be on-call around the clock, were required to deal with at-risk students without proper support and also had to assist staff with personal issues. The school disputed this.

The ERA accepted that the Cronin-Lampes were unwell, but because many of the traumatic incidents were historic and they didn't tell the school that they weren't coping at the time, their claims failed.

Melville High School principal Clive Hamill said the Cronin-Lampes had made a "very valuable contribution" to the school and was disappointed the dispute couldn't be resolved internally.

"The pleasing thing for us was our policies and practices were upheld. We're looking forward to moving on really."

However, the Cronin-Lampes' case has exposed the human toll of working in a sector that, advocates claim, is in high demand and dangerously under-resourced.

New Zealand Association of Counsellors spokeswoman Sarah Maindonald said many school counsellors now had waiting lists.

"Teachers get non-contact hours and, as counsellors under the teacher contract, we're supposed to get non-contact hours, but the reality of the workload is that most counsellors would have to fill those with appointments just to keep up with the demand," she said.

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"Worst-case scenario, if the demand is too great for the resource, then there's a possibility of missing something. That could impact on students' safety."

She said counsellors were required to deal with self-harming, death, suicide, bullying, drug and alcohol abuse, family violence, sexual abuse, depression and eating disorders.

The NZAC has been lobbying the government to increase funding for school counsellors and the Education Review Office is compiling a national survey of schools' counselling services. The government is also in the process of rolling out its Youth Mental Health Project, aimed at improving services for teenagers.

Hamilton Boys' High School has two counsellors for about 2200 students; Hillcrest High has 2.5 for 1600 students; and Melville High has two for 620 students.

Hillcrest High principal Kelvin Whiting said social media, broken families, the economy and pressure in school were fuelling students' struggles.

Ministry of Education figures showed only 19 specialised guidance counsellors in Waikato schools last year, but spokesman Matt Radley said schools often assigned teachers to provide counselling.

- Waikato Times

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