Amidst urgent need for school counsellors, coroner recommends review of school suicide prevention policies 

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday
A shortage of counsellors in NT schools could put young people's mental health needs at risk.

Almost half of the counsellor roles in Northern Territory schools remain empty – despite warnings for the region’s Education Department to take action to provide greater support for students’ mental health.

During last week’s budget estimates, NT Education Minister Mark Monaghan revealed there were 14 vacant school counsellor roles in schools across the Territory.

But even if those positions are filled urgently, the ratio means there still only be 30 people qualified to care for the mental health needs of more than 30,000 students – and with the NT Government deeming that even those who have studied for three years to become a counsellor are not fit to care for students’ mental health, it’s a shortage that seems challenging to solve.

The NT Education Department currently employs just 30 school-based counsellors but says a Bachelor of Counselling is not enough for an applicant to be considered for the in-demand job.

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“Qualifications for school counsellors in NT – as approved through the OCPE Qualifications Framework – state a school counsellor must have a degree in social work or psychology that provides registration as a provisional or registered psychologist with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency or eligibility as a social worker with the Australian Association of Social Workers,” a Department of Education spokeswoman said earlier this year.

To help address the critical shortfall, Minister Monaghan says the NT Government is “building a team of other allied health professionals; we have specialist teachers, psychologists, positive behaviour implementation coaches, occupational therapists, speech therapists and the little team centrally located that does the supervision and handles the triage of the staff”.

“We are in transition to building that into a bigger cohort of allied health staff that we hope with the additional funding for next year we will be able to grow.”

Inquest findings recommend better suicide prevention policies in NT schools

His comments came as Coroner Elisabeth Armitage scrutinised the Education Department’s mental health supports during a recent inquest and handed down her findings on Thursday 27 June in relation to the suicide of a 13-year-old student, Grace, in January 2022.

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The findings revealed that well-being protocols at her school in the months before her death meant the teenager’s slight drop in both academic grades and class attendance – together with three visits to the school counsellor – were not enough to trigger a significant response.

Throughout the inquest – held in February this year – Armitage heard the teenager had confided in a school counsellor that she was having suicidal thoughts before she took her own life. Armitage’s recommendation include that the NT Education Department should ensure its policies incorporate best practice “following any disclosure of suicidality and suicidal thoughts by a student”.

In the months before her death, Grace had been assessed as “low” risk of taking her own life and her disclosure was not reported to the school principal.

Judge Armitage said evidence showed the teenager was “secretly suffering”, adding that Grace’s disclosure to a school counsellor provided a “sliver of opportunity for intervention”. 

Judge Armitage found Grace’s school counsellor had failed to properly record details of their counselling sessions, including basic information such as case notes and consent forms.

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She also found there was no documented risk assessment or safety plan when Grace said she was feeling suicidal, or a detailed record of communication with a parent about the girls’ disclosure. 

“It is not possible to know whether Grace’s death might have been prevented, but I consider that more decisive policies and guidelines concerning risk assessments and interventions in schools following suicide disclosures are warranted.”

If you or anyone you know needs help:

  • Lifeline: 13 11 14
  • MensLine Australia: 1300 789 978 
  • Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636
  • Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800
  • Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467

In response to the findings being handed down, Minister Monaghan says the well-being of students and staff was a top priority.

“I’d like to offer my condolences to Grace’s family, friends and school community. We know there is more work to do. We will continue to support the well-being of our students and teachers, and we will carefully consider all recommendations in the Coroner’s report.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]