Student lives at risk over school mental health policies


Schools across Australia have unfilled vacancies for mental health practitioners, thousands of tertiary-qualified counsellors are available but are being shut out of the system.

The peak body representing Australia’s counsellors and psychotherapists wants to know why.

CEO of the Australian Counselling Association (ACA) Jodie McKenzie reveals that all state education departments except one only accept limited professions like social workers and psychologists to fill the role of a school-based mental health practitioner – despite the fact that counsellors are qualified and experienced.

She says there are simply not enough people in those categories to meet the needs of students, and “as counsellors, we know that, sadly, when people cannot get the help they need, the consequences can be tragic”.

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Australia needs national approach to school counsellors

Recently there has been a breakthrough of sorts with Victoria now recognising “counsellors of a prescribed class,” a move Ms McKenzie hails.

“These are counsellors who are registered, experienced and are more than capable to meet student needs,” she says.

However, she says one state is not enough and has called on other states to follow Victoria’s lead.

“New South Wales and Queensland both claim to be placing a mental health practitioner in every school in 2024 but I can’t see how this will be achieved while their current eligibility excludes counsellors.”

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Students face range of issues that impact mental health

Ms McKenzie says issues in the schoolyard include bullying, relationships, family issues, conflict, anxiety, stress, self-harm and suicide – all issues that counsellors deal with daily, “and when required we refer the student to more specialist support”.

The current cost-of-living crisis has added extra pressures, with Ms McKenzie saying that “many parents currently can’t afford to pay for a therapist, so being able to access a mental health practitioner for free counselling at school will mean more students receiving support”.

She says it’s time to be blunt.

“Students who can’t access the right help are at real risk; their lives are at risk. This doesn’t have to be the case because there are qualified counsellors available,” Ms McKenzie says.

“Victoria has acted, now other states must act.”

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