Counsellors 'rushed off feet'

JODY O'CALLAGHAN
Last updated 05:00 11/12/2013

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School counsellors are struggling to keep up with caseloads as children seek help for increasingly complex personal problems.

The scenario is compounded in Christchurch as students continue to deal with "post-earthquake anxiety", school and counselling representatives say.

The Education Review Office (ERO) report into guidance and counselling in secondary schools, released yesterday, recommended the Education Ministry provide clear guidance and support to schools, including providing professional development, and look at the formula used to fund school staffing.

The maximum staffing entitlement of 2.3 full-time teaching equivalents applied both to schools with about 200 students and those with about 2000 students. It was also concerned about the lack of accountability for schools use of funding provided for guidance staffing.

The findings match what New Zealand Association of Counsellors spokeswoman Sarah Maindonald is seeing in Christchurch, where school counsellors were "rushed off our feet".

"In Christchurch I think it's risen because of post-earthquake anxiety. Youth mental health in Christchurch I think is a real issue."

In 2011, Maindonald - a Hillmorton High School counsellor - had a 50 to 60-pupil caseload at any one time. Last year that rose to 95. This compared to a recommended caseload of about a third of that in general counselling roles.

"It becomes a safety thing having to juggle so many kids.

"When you're pushing them through and seeing two or three in an hour, it's just not good."

She knew of a Christchurch girl who was self-harming and had earthquake-related post-traumatic stress disorder last year. It took three months for her to be seen by her counsellor.

Canterbury Westland Secondary Principals Association chairman Neil Wilkinson said principals were reporting concerns about their overworked guidance counsellors, "particularly in Christchurch at the moment".

"The earthquake fallout is still substantial. Schools reflect society don't they?"

It was "nonsense" the same counsellor ratio applied to small schools as it did for large ones, he said.

ERO evaluation services manager Stephanie Greaney said one of the key findings of the report was that although school counselling staff had the professional ability to help students, their increasing workload made it difficult for them to fully respond.

The complex nature of some of the students' problems compounded the situation.

COMPLEX ISSUES

Student problems seen by school counsellors:

61 per cent identified poor mental health, including anger, anxiety, body image, eating disorders, depression, self-harm, stress, psychosis and suicidal ideas.

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78 per cent saw poverty-related suffering, including poor housing, parents working long hours, transience, condoned absenteeism due to responsibilities including caring for younger siblings and students working inappropriate jobs and long hours.

57 per cent saw family dysfunction, including family breakdown, domestic violence, intergenerational problems and transience caused by family breakdown

55 per cent dealt with bullying, including social media and cyber bullying

47 per cent saw students dealing with relationship issues. 

- Fairfax Media

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