Youth suicide – a partially hidden crisis

Brian Mooney

The crisis of suicide in schools is to some extent a hidden one. When a suicide occurs, the first instinct of any school or community is to protect the family and the other students in the school. Although understandable, this policy hides from view the shocking reality of what is taking place.

With total respect for the families involved, I wish to offer here a case study of the effects of the loss of the ex quota guidance counselling hours on a particular school.

In September 2012, as a result of the loss of the ex quota hours, a Kerry based Guidance Counsellor (GC) in a 440-pupil second-level school lost a large portion of her guidance counselling hours and effectively returned to the classroom as a Leaving Certificate subject teacher.

Ultimately, the new ruling on ex quota hours saw this Guidance Counsellor losing a large portion of her one-to-one contact hours with students. These one-to-one sessions are used by the GC to tease out the college choices and other options of students. Within that conversation, some students who are experiencing many forms of stress in their lives are identified. The GC seeks to support such students and to assist them in acquiring self seeking behaviours.

However, in the current school year, the Guidance Counsellor in our case study does not have the hours anymore to carry out this work fully or adequately.

Six weeks ago, a 17-year-old student in her school took his own life. The entire local population undertook to do everything it could to support the school community, and a NEPS psychologist was present in the school to support the staff in dealing with the critical incident.

Teachers spoke to their classes but many of them were very uncomfortable doing so because they had no training for this highly personal work and they saw themselves very much as subject teachers.

The Guidance Counsellor did everything she could to support the entire student body. The DES offered extra hours to the school for a short period of time up to Easter, but because the GC was committed to delivering Leaving Certificate programmes, she could not fully deliver these extra hours.

Last Thursday, a second 17-year-old in the school took his life and the school was left in a deeply distressed state. Again the teachers were expected to go into classes to address the issue.

This time there was a high level of anger among the staff because they felt completely outside their competence field and comfort zone. Many of them were terrified that they might say something, or fail to say something, that might lead to another child self harming.

Again, the Guidance Counsellor – the only person in the school qualified to do this kind of work – was totally disarmed in dealing with this crisis. She was – and is – inundated with referrals from both parents and fellow students of vulnerable children. She wants to do the job she was trained to do and provide counselling to the students, but she cannot do so to all the students who require support at this time because she is in the middle of a Leaving Certificate programme, and her students are entitled to expect her full teaching focus.

The DES is now offering extra counselling hours but again these cannot be fully delivered due to subject teaching commitments. Neither is it a solution to bring someone in from outside.  Counselling is based on a relationship of trust built up over years working with a child. You cannot parachute someone in to do this work – which is why NEPS psychologists never provide one-to-one counselling for students, but always work instead through the Guidance Counsellor.

The school was asked by NEPS not to speak to the media in order to protect the family. This is the case in every suicide. Unfortunately, the effect of this policy is to hide the true nature of what is going on in our society.

Even a full-time Guidance Counsellor working constantly with students both in class groups and in one-to-one sessions will not stop many self harm incidents and suicides. Alcohol plays a huge part in self harm and Guidance Counsellors cannot be there when students decide to engage with alcohol outside school.

But – if they are given the time to do so – GCs can provide a full professional service in their day to day work. If, on the other hand, they are forced back into subject teacher roles, then when tragedy strikes they cannot respond no matter how much they may want to.

The core question is a very simple one: can we afford to dispense with a vital counselling support service to students, where vulnerable youngsters have a chance to learn help seeking behaviour?

Surely we can find the resources to allow professionally qualified Guidance Counsellors to carry out their work in protecting our children?

The Guidance Counsellor in this case is happy that I highlight recent tragic events within her school in my blog, while protecting the identity of the families involved. These events show starkly what we are facing as a society.

Together we must find a way to protect our children’s lives. Taking Guidance Counsellors out of their professional role and returning them to the classroom in the name of austerity is a step too far.

Let us all have the courage to do whatever is within our power to provide our children with a genuine guidance counselling service in schools. Our children deserve no less.

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