Counsellors in schools could ‘almost eliminate’ waiting lists for child mental health services

Niall Muldoon was referencing a model being trialled with much success in Dorset in England, which allocates about four dedicated mental health professionals per 7,500 schoolchildren.

The ombudsman said such a system was achievable in Ireland if it we “established it slowly” and “create a system that is attractive for [counsellors] to join”.

He urged the Department of Health to assist the Department of Education in developing this model, which he said so far it has been reluctant to do and called for it to match the €5m spent by the department on counselling trials in secondary schools.

Mr Muldoon was speaking at a sitting of the Oireachtas joint committee on education which was discussing the worsening crisis in mental health for children.

‘Window of opportunity’

Mr Muldoon said there is a “window of opportunity opening for our politicians and civil servants to create a world-class therapeutic service within our education system that is collaborative and integrated, not separate and in competition with, our health system”.

“Our children deserve no less,” he said.

He warned the Department of Education not to distribute funds directly to schools to individually source counsellors as this puts pressure on principals already struggling to keep up.

“We are living in a society that is high pressured for children in which it never was before,” he said.

You can catch up with your academics when you’re 25 or 40, but you can’t catch up on development of self-esteem.

Suzanne Connolly, chief executive of children’s charity Barnardos, said the pandemic did little to help the crisis. She called for increased funding from the Government for early-intervention programmes in schools.

Green Party TD Marc Ó Cathasaigh said: “I suspect in the future we will talk about mobile phone ownership among children like we talk about cigarettes.”

The ombudsman added to the comments suggesting internet usage should be controlled and monitored by parents.

Climate anxiety 

Chief executive of Grow it Yourself Michael Kelly said an increasing number of children are struggling with climate anxiety.

He suggested adults should “modulate our language” around children when talking about climate change, and headlines featuring terms like “climate hell” and “doom” coming out of Cop27 can be difficult for even adults to process — never mind children.

Grow it Yourself has piloted school gardens in more than 130 schools around the country, at €2,000 for four raised beds and 14 types of vegetables to be grown throughout the school year. 

Mr Kelly argued not only do gardens have mental health benefits, with “happiness-boosting bugs in the soil”, but it is “critical that we provide these students with the tools, knowledge and life skills to support their wellbeing into the future” in the context of a worsening food crisis amid climate heating.

Mr Kelly envisages rolling the project out to half of Irish schools by 2024, followed by every school in the country by 2030. He urged the committee to support calls to obtain Government funding for the plans.

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