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Children's health

21st Apr 2022

We are facing a youth ‘mental health pandemic’ primary school teachers warn

mental health

These are scary numbers.

A report by the Royal College of Surgeons has found that one in three Irish children will experience a type of mental health disorder by the time they turn 13, with this rising to one in two by 24.

Add to this the Covid-19 pandemic, lockdowns and school closures, and what we have, according to primary school teachers, is pretty much a recipe for disaster.

In fact, referrals to Child & Adolescent Mental Health Service (Camhs) and other services have risen by a whopping 40 percent as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and of the 18,000 children expected to be referred to the Camhs service in 2020, only 11,000 were expected to be seen.

This, teachers argue, needs to change, and delegates at the INTO Congress 2022 passed a motion earlier this week calling for increased funding for children’s mental health services – in particular for on-site support and counselling for primary students.

Proposing the motion, INTO member Órlaith Ní Fhoghlú said that a lack of early intervention supports in primary schools is a “vicious cycle” leading to longer waiting lists for child adolescent community mental health services (Camhs), and teens with more acute issues. She said:

“I know that every single teacher in this room knows that one in three, 10 in 30 in a class, of the children who need services, who need support, and are waiting very patiently, but very frustratingly.”

On-site school counselling in primary schools

Teachers at the Congress spoke about their pupils being unable to access the mental health supports they need, and said the number of pupils at primary level seeking behavioural and emotional interventions has increased.

“Early intervention works,” Ní Fhoghlú explained.

“School-based mental health supports; it isn’t groundbreaking stuff. It’s something that we’ve repeatedly asked of minister after minister for education.”

She added:

“Teachers are doing their best, schools are doing their best, but the wait is getting longer and the need is getting far greater.”

Róisín Nic Tighearnáin, a delegate from the Mullingar INTO, agreed:

“I really feel that emotional health and wellbeing have become a buzzword, and I’m sick sore and tired of the platitudes that are being spoken about… children in our special classes have not got access to appropriate psychological services, that’s as it is, and we are at the cold face of that day in, day out.”

Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Fiona Garvey, a delegate from Cork City South East branch, revealed that there are currently children that the system is failing, and that teachers have a “duty of care” to call for support to be put in place.

“When society has an itch, schools are expected to scratch it,” she said.

“The state of children’s mental health in our primary schools is more than an itch; it is a gaping wound, a deep abyss which our vulnerable pupils are attempting to escape. We are ill-equipped to staunch that wound.”

Members of the INTO are now calling for a national framework to be put in place, to develop counselling services for primary school children, and the introduce on-site school counselling in primary schools in line with international best practices.