A ground-breaking initiative to provide in-school mental health counselling for primary pupils is on the way.
It comes as National Parents Council Primary (NPC), the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) teachers, principals and mental health professionals increasingly turn the spotlight on rising incidence of anxiety among children.
Growing use of social media, and at younger ages, is regarded as a contributory factor, while research showed that the Covid pandemic had a negative impact on children’s emotional health.
Other issues affecting children’s wellbeing include bullying, domestic violence, bereavement or other trauma.
Referrals to the child adolescent community mental health services (CAMHS) have jumped significantly in the past decade, In the first 11 months of 2021, 21,317 referrals were made to CAHMS, of which 14,271 were accepted.
While the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) provides a support service to schools, it is not funded to provide routine on-site nurturing or counselling to pupils at risk.
Education Minister Norma Foley secured €5m in Budget 2023 to develop a pilot programme of counselling supports in primary schools , to start next September, and announced it at Fianna Fail Ard Fheis.
Ms Foley told independent.ie that well-being was “integral to all that we seek to achieve in schools, and I am very conscious that students, in particular in the last number of years, have met many challenges.”
She added: "I'm conscious that within the primary school sector there is an opportunity now for us to look at wellbeing supports in the area of counselling”.
The minister said there was “absolutely no doubt that students have been impacted by Covid, but equally, I am unconscious the environment in which students now live is very different to the environment they might have experienced in times past”.
Ms Foley said it would “serve to support the very positive work which already takes place in the area of well-being in our schools”.
She said she was very proud of the supports offered to schools but “this is an area, particularly in primary schools, that deserves new consideration”.
The minister said they would consult with the education partners, experts in the field and international best practice and would explore various models before deciding on the nature of the pilot programme.
There would be further learning from the pilot, which would roll-out in all types and sizes of schools, she said.
Additional resources for NEPS were also announced in the Budget, but Ms Foley said the in-school counselling pilot was a stand-alone initiative.
Many European countries have emotional counsellors and therapists in schools.
INTO director of education, research and learning Máirín Ní Chéileachair said research showed at least one in three children suffer from mental health difficulties by the age of 13, and there were very few services for parents to access.
She said in Nordic countries they had found that co-locating child psychological support services in schools were most effective, because that is where children were attending every day.
In its pre-Budget submission, the INTO called for funding for onsite counselling services in primary schools, saying its members had witnessed the adverse impact of mental ill-health and poor emotional wellbeing, exacerbated by lengthy waiting lists for specialist services.
In a report last year on school bullying and the impact on mental health, the Oireachtas education committee called for emotional counselling and therapeutic supports be provided on site, as needed, in all primary and post primary schools through a reconstituted and expanded National Educational Psychological and Counselling Service (NEPCS).