The Department of Education is removing school counsellors across senior schools in the Northern Territory.
Transitioning into a new model that is set to see school counsellors operate as a third party at the Mitchell Centre in Darwin’s CBD, senior students who are seeking immediate access to a counsellor will now have to book an appointment through the Centre.
Concerns have been raised about this new model by Casuarina Senior College’s Student Leadership Team, The Northern Territory Council Of Government School Organisations (COGSO), and the Australian Education Union Northern Territory branch (AEUNT).
One of the concerns with the change of system is teachers are now predicted to shift their teaching time and focus from educating students to instead emotional regulation for students.
The decision to remove counsellors could see teachers acting in their place as they are the senior staff who are on school grounds at times of crisis.
AEUNT President Michelle Ayres says this is concerning for teachers own wellbeing as they are not trained in trauma informed care but will now be expected to de-escalate students when needed.
“So when there’s not a school counsellor in place a teacher would be more likely to step up and take on some of that counselling role themselves without the professional training that a school counsellor receives,” she says.
“We need people who are specifically trained to deal with the mental health crisis that we are seeing in schools.”
CSC Captain Cathryn says they understand the pressures teachers are already under, and this change could contribute to that.
“Teachers are already handling a lot of things, and we just don’t want to add on to that.”
In addition to added pressures for teachers, extra barriers will be in place for senior students seeking mental health support.
Michelle Ayres says the new model is making it harder for students to seek mental health support.
“The student potentially has to set an appointment or reach out and ask to see the counsellor rather than just knocking on a door,” she says.
“In addition, that counsellor is now spread across multiple schools, has less time for those students, and also there is less time for that person to just build genuine relationships with the students.”
COGSO President Tabby Fudge says removing school counsellors and putting them in the centre acts as a triage system and does not take into consideration the importance of having immediate access to a mental health support.
“Somebody from the school will have to contact somebody from the Mitchell Street Centre, then that person will have to determine whether or not that student is eligible for counselling,” she says.
“What is the ridiculous thing about this is that when somebody is asking for help they need it right now, not in a week or two’s time, and they definitely don’t need somebody who doesn’t even know them to be making that decision as to whether or not they require the service.”
By removing counsellors from schools, students are becoming concerned over how accessible this will be, and the guarantee around mental health services for students as it is an inconsistent model.
CSC Captain Keszia says there has been no communication between students and the Department of Education when making these changes.
“It’s unacceptable, it’s putting a third party in place when it should just be between the student and the school counsellor,” she says.
“The lack of consultation with us and the people behind this model just exhibits the lack of respect they have towards us.”
In a statement by the Northern Territory Department of Education, a spokesperson says they have been communicating with schools and students about the changes and are looking to recruit more staff.
“We are speaking with students through the Youth Voice Peak Group and actively engaging students in schools who have raised concerns around the new model,” the spokesperson says.
“The department is currently running an extensive recruitment campaign to boost the number of social workers, psychologists, and other allied health professionals for Territory schools.”
The statement from The Department of Education spokesperson says the new model is set to provide better outcomes.
“The move to regional teams will provide greater equity in access to services and support, acknowledging that there is a national shortage in skilled expertise in the mental health industry,” the spokesperson says.
“The model that is being introduced is consistent with what other states and territories in Australia are doing to ensure support is available to all students.”
The statement continues to outline that if senior schools across the NT are requiring additional mental health staff on school grounds, they will have to use their own funding for this.
“School counsellors are one area of support that schools and the department provide to students,” the spokesperson says.
“Schools, as always, can recruit support staff within their allocated funding.”
CSC Captain Keszia says the change in model does not suit students’ needs for wellbeing support.
“Really, if (counsellors) don’t have the time frame to form that connection with students and we’re having to delay that provision of help, I don’t understand any benefit from implementing this model”.