Jo Holmes, Children, Young People and Families Lead at the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), writes about the need for greater investment in school counselling.

The start of 2020 has brought with it a flood of headlines highlighting just how much the country is failing children and teenagers who are struggling with their mental health.

The shocking figure of a 330% increase in children admitted to A&E with mental health problems stood out to me. These are children who are turning up at hospital with suicidal thoughts, yet they were not offered treatment from NHS mental health services. It is best practice for a person whose referral is rejected to be signposted to other available local resources and websites. [Editor's note: whilst best practice, this does not always happen.]

"If offered early enough, school counselling could be one of the answers to reducing the strain on more specialist services".

Some 43% of GPs admitted that they encourage families to seek private mental health treatment for their children as they say NHS services are too overwhelmed to help. This was another story that caught my eye.

The constraints of the system are not supporting at risk young people when they need it the most.

Trailblazer areas                          

In the past year, the government’s answer to every mental health question is to talk either about the future success of trailblazer areas across England or the NHS Five Year Forward View.

The worrying aspect of both of these key strategic policies is the lack of acknowledgment that counselling plays in transforming children and young people’s mental health, as well as the lack of NHS providers to meet this growing need.

In reality the trailblazer areas – which consist of a variety of mental health support projects funded by the Government - only cover about 20% of schools and communities.

We continually hear from young people and parents as well as schools and colleges that there is a need for counselling based within educational settings. This is supported via the Children’s Commissioner’s report asking for a counsellor in every school.

We hear stories about how counselling has helped not only children and young people’s mental health – but also their confidence, family relationships, friendships, school attendance, and academic achievement. 

School counselling does not rely on Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) thresholds or parents being able to afford to pay for it. It is universal at the point of access. If offered early enough, school counselling could be one of the answers to reducing the strain on more specialist services.

Third sector projects

A third sector project in Wales is among the counselling projects which has achieved exactly this.

Later this month I’ll be visiting Area 43, based in Cardigan, to see their important work for myself.

The service offers counselling sessions to local schools and has managed to reduce the number of CAMHS referrals made. It only refers those with much higher and more complex needs who therefore meet the threshold and whose needs cannot be met through counselling alone.

Children who would previously have been rejected by CAMHS but still experience a range of mental health issues are supported much earlier and in non-clinical settings, demonstrating the range of choices and benefits available before a CAMHS referral ever needs to be made.

This is just one example of how counselling is the ideal option to work with children and young people experiencing psychological distress.

Unburdening CAMHS through school counselling

Access to universal school counselling delivered by qualified and paid professionals who have the skills and training to specifically work with children and young people, has to be the way forward. It’s something BACP has been lobbying politicians for over the past few years.

We know there’s a mental health crisis affecting the nation’s young people.

We know from the statistics that the current system is not supporting children and teenagers as it should.

We know that school counselling can change young people’s lives.

So let’s make 2020 the year that school counselling is taken seriously as an option that can play a crucial role in tackling this crisis.