Suicidal teens just as likely to talk to janitor as counsellor, says Minister

Depressed or suicidal teens are just as likely to confide in the school caretaker as they are a guidance counsellor, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has claimed today.

The former teacher defended Government cuts to guidance counsel services, insisting a whole-school approach can lead to early intervention and prevent the kind of tragedies seen over recent months.

"If somebody trusts a teacher and something has happened, and I know this myself from having taught in third level, they will go to the person with whom they feel most comfortable," Mr Quinn said.

"It could be the cleaner, it could be the maintenance man, or it could be the physical education or sports teacher."

Mr Quinn and Junior Minister responsible for mental health Kathleen Lynch have launched new national guidelines for preventing suicide in secondary schools.

The 10-point plan, which also promotes positive mental health among pupils, will be sent to every school in the country in the coming weeks.

Schools will be asked to evaluate their existing policies for identifying and supporting troubled teens, and adopt the Government guidelines.

The Institute of Guidance Counsellors accused the Government of introducing the guidelines in an attempt to cover up the removal of qualified counsellors from schools.

In a statement, the group said while it was welcome that all members of staff such as trusted teachers be vigilant, a guidance counsellor with therapeutic and counselling training was better equipped to support a child with suicidal thoughts.

“A parent may notice their child’s arm is broken, that does not mean you don’t have to take him to the doctor,” it said.“

“The guidance counsellor is qualified and certified whereas the classroom teacher is overworked and not an expert in counselling or therapeutic intervention.”

The whole school community - including students, teachers, principals, health personnel, school managers and school visitors - will be asked to be vigilant for struggling pupils.

Where an issue is identified, depending on how serious it is, the school then co-operates with the Health Service Executive.

Mr Quinn insisted this would be more effective than employing a single guidance counsellor.

"It's the role of parents, it's the role of the health service, and a whole host of others," he said.

"Guidance counsellors provide guidance in relation to career options and career choices. But they might not necessarily be the first person in the school community to notice a change in the behaviour of a pupil that would warrant further scrutiny.

The guidelines are divided into three parts - support for all pupils, support for some, and support for two.

The latter two sections apply where an issue has been identified with a child and they need more targeted attention. In more serious cases, the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, suicide prevention officers and psychologists could be called in.

Mr Quinn announced cuts to guidance counsel services in Budget 2012, demanding that existing teachers be allocated the responsibility as opposed to specifically trained counsellors.

According to the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, one-to-one work with students has been cut back by 51% since the cuts were imposed.

But the minister insisted the Government was trying to do its best with the money available.

"Guidance counsellors remain central to the provision of support and counselling when it is identified as being necessary," he said.

"But we see a role for the maths teacher, the English teacher, the sports physical education person if a young person's behaviour starts to change very dramatically."

Meanwhile, the new suicide prevention guidelines have been welcomed by the HSE's National Office for Suicide Prevention.

Director Gerry Raleigh said they were evidence of a further need to develop inter-agency relationships - between the departments of education and health - if suicide rates are to be tackled.

Earlier this week, Mr Quinn launched a new action plan for schools to tackle bullying.

He said it was time for action - particularly following the tragic suicides of school girls Erin Gallagher and Ciara Pugsley late last year.

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