Early interventions ‘missed’ as NSW struggles with shortage of school counsellors

<span>Photograph: FatCamera/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: FatCamera/Getty Images

A dire shortage of school counsellors means New South Wales students are going without disability assessments and early interventions as staff scramble to triage the most serious cases, including suicide risks, sexual assaults and teen pregnancies.

Department of Education figures obtained by Guardian Australia reveal there was one counsellor for every 650 students across the state in August, not accounting for staff on uncovered leave – meaning the reality was far worse.

The 2021 Gallop inquiry recommended there be at least one school counsellor for every 500 students “to address the significant increase in student mental health issues”.

Exhausted counsellors, who have both a teaching and psychology degree, say staff are quitting due to the high workload and intensity of consistently dealing with only the most critical cases.

Sydney-based counsellor Angie* said her team was almost always understaffed due to vacancies and that burnout was common.

“I always say to all my principals that I’m only staffed at 70%, you’ll get 70% of your counsellor time,” she said.

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“We now only do the pointy end stuff. We don’t do any wellbeing or any welfare, we triage serious mental health only.

“An emergency department essentially is what counsellors are doing in schools now.”

She said low-level interventions like check ups, psychological assessments and intellect tests were now “few are far between”.

Northern Tablelands school counsellor Jacob* said he is often left distressed when he visits poorly serviced regional schools and discovers kids who could have been helped with earlier interventions.

“Where schools have gone for a long time without counselling service … and then they get a school counsellor come in, you find so many kids who are entitled to additional funding support for learning disabilities and intellectual disabilities,” he said.

“They just haven’t been assessed so these kids have missed out for years. That’s pretty distressing.”

While he loves his job, Jacob regularly considers leaving.

“I’m making a difference in what I do but there is a limit and eventually I will change to something else,” he says.

Jacob is one of 1,375 people employed full or part-time in the school counselling service, according to the department.

While the numbers are low, the department said other members of staff were also trained to provide basic care which meant coverage was better than it seemed.

“We have more than 2,000 staff providing wellbeing support to our students, including school counsellors, school psychologists, student support officers, behaviour specialists and wellbeing nurses,” a spokesperson said.

“This equates to around one for every 400 students. However, approaching wellbeing support in schools through ratios works against the varied needs of student wellbeing.”

The education minister, Sarah Mitchell, said school counselling services were “just one part of an extensive network of professionals and programs” providing support to students.

The department has pledged that by June next year, every public high school will have a full-time school counsellor and a full-time student support officer.

Forbes-based Federation of Parents and Citizens’ president, Natalie Walker, said counsellors were needed more than ever, especially in the regions affected by floods, fires and Covid.

“It’s just been so challenging the last few years, and really overwhelming so anything additional that’s put on families can really sometimes make or break them,” she said.

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Walker said parents in the northern rivers region were concerned their kids did not have enough support in schools.

“With all these rains still happening, many children, young people are getting quite anxious,” she said.

“Natural disasters really are having quite a quite an impact on the mental health of our families and our kids.”

The NSW Teachers Federation head, Angelo Gavrielatos says the situation across the state represents an “absolute failure” of government.

“Our school counsellors are dedicated, committed professionals doing all they can to meet the increasingly complex needs of our students but their caseload is totally unrealistic, unmanageable and unacceptable,” he said.

*Names have been changed

• In Australia, support is available at Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14, and at MensLine on 1300 789 978. In the UK, the charity Mind is available on 0300 123 3393 and Childline on 0800 1111. In the US, Mental Health America is available on 800-273-8255