Anger as Ruairi Quinn advises troubled children to 'talk to school cleaner'
EDUCATION Minister Ruairi Quinn drew the ire of guidance counsellors by suggesting troubled teens should talk to the cleaner or maintenance man.
School managers warned that new national guidelines on mental health and suicide prevention in second-level schools won't work without proper resources.
The guidelines are due to be distributed to schools soon and propose a "whole-school" approach to dealing with mental health, involving students, teachers, principals and all other school staff.
The move was broadly welcomed after several high-profile cases of teen suicide.
But amid cuts to school guidance counsellor services, Mr Quinn's comments were criticised.
"If somebody trusts a teacher and something has happened they will go to the person with whom they feel most comfortable," Mr Quinn said.
"It could be the cleaner, it could be the maintenance man, or it could be the physical education or sports teacher."
The Institute of Guidance Counsellors said the guidelines were "nothing more than an attempt to cover up" the removal of the professional guidance and counselling service from schools.
But Mr Quinn defended the guidelines and said: "Guidance counsellors provide guidance in relation to career options.
"But they might not necessarily be the first person in the school community to notice a change in the behaviour of a pupil that would warrant further scrutiny."
The guidelines include measures such as early identification of young people or groups who were at risk of developing "unhealthy patterns of behaviour".
They advise schools to encourage pupils to get involved with extra-curricular activities, and also want parents and teachers alike to develop a mental health policy.
They were published as a new survey revealed an increasing number of primary school children suffer from mental health issues.
Carried out by the Irish Primary Principal's Network (IPPN), the survey shows just over half of primary school leaders reported increasing evidence of family trauma.
One-in-five said the incidence of depression among primary school children was rising. Three-out-of-five primary school principals saw an increase in emotional disturbance among pupils.
With an estimated one-in-10 children and teenagers experiencing mental health disorders, IPPN director Sean Cotrell said the survey showed that the problem was not confined to second-level schools.
But while Mr Quinn's comments sparked some controversy, there was general welcome for the new guidelines.
The Psychiatric Nurses Association described them as a "critical tool".
But the Joint Managerial Body (JMB) general secretary Ferdia Kelly said the guidelines were an excellent idea but schools faced a huge problem in trying to implement them.
A moratorium on posts of responsibility meant that fewer assistant principals were acting as year heads to provide pastoral care to students.
He said counsellors had also been hit by allocation cutbacks and were no longer able to offer one-to-one counselling.
"It is not for a want or a willingness to implement these guidelines – but they won't happen unless proper resources and professional support are put in place," he said.
The Children's Mental Health Coalition also welcomed the measures but spokesman Colm O'Gorman said that without a clear implementation plan, there was still a long way to go.
Meanwhile, the country's biggest trade union has asked students to help tackle cyber-bullying in the university sector.
Siptu's education sector organiser Louise O'Reilly said: "It is clear to us that the problem of cyber-bullying does not end at the school gate and regrettably some of our third-level members have been impacted."