The 2019 NSW budget handed down in June allocated $88.4 million for 100 new school counsellors and 350 extra support officers to provide mental health and wellbeing support — but only for students in public high schools.
CSNSW chief executive officer Dallas McInerney said this was an example of the government basing funding decisions on sector rather than need. “It is not only government schools that have needy students; non-government schools educate one in three NSW students, the vast majority from low and middle-income families where much of the disadvantage exists,” Mr McInerney said.
Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Schools Office student wellbeing co-ordinator Emma Merlino said school counsellors employed by the Diocese worked directly with students and families, from kindergarten to year 12, counselling students, conducting educational and behavioural assessments, supporting families and liaising with external services.
She said in terms of mental health, anxiety was among the most common reasons for referral. “A 2015 report by the Federal Department of Health found students with a mental health disorder miss a higher number of school days than their peers, are therefore more likely to have poor academic achievement, disengage from school and ultimately have greater difficulty adjusting to the adult workforce,” she said.
According to Ms Merlino, the NSW Coroner recommended in 2010 that there be one school counsellor for every 500 students but, despite an increase in recent years, the Catholic Schools Office Maitland-Newcastle was unable to meet this recommendation due to funding restraints, and students were at times left waiting.
“Sadly schools are seeing more young people presenting with significant distress including self-harm and suicidal thoughts,” Ms Merlino said. “Having more professional counsellors based in our schools would mean students who need additional help, be that due to poor mental health, difficulties with learning, family and other issues, will be more able to access early intervention and support.”
Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle acting director of schools Gerard Mowbray said the Catholic Schools Office budgeted each year to incrementally increase the number of counsellors. “A decade ago, our goal was to provide a full-time counsellor for 1000 students. This ratio is now one counsellor per 800 students,” he said. “We will continue to prioritise annual improvements to this ratio.”
Mr Mowbray said it was now untenable not to offer these services.
CSNSW’s Mr McInerney said the principle of needs-based support demanded that counselling be available to all schools where necessary.
“Catholic schools educate students from all socio-economic backgrounds in both rural and metropolitan areas,” he said. “I call on the NSW government to extend these and other targeted programs to all sectors so that needy students receive support wherever they go to school.”
Ms Merlino said Catholic school students were just as likely to be impacted by social and emotional issues as the next student.
“Increasing the number of specialist, well trained counsellors in Catholic schools would ensure that students have access to prevention programs and quality mental health support before problems become more serious,” she said.