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Thursday, Aug 11, 2022

School counselling can address mental health crisis among Hong Kong youth

School counselling can address mental health crisis among Hong Kong youth

Stigma around mental health issues, poor availability of support services and other concerns are heaping more suffering on our young people. School counsellors are specifically trained to support young people in school settings, but they remain marginalised and underutilised.

Children and teens in Hong Kong have lower levels of mental health than their counterparts in other regions. This is not news. We know from research over many years that young people in Hong Kong are suffering, and recent articles in the Post have drawn attention to the factors which contribute to this situation.

A high level of community stigma around mental health issues and a reluctance to seek help are compounded by the poor availability and overcentralisation of support services, as well as a society characterised by deep social and financial inequality.

The social unrest of 2019 continues to have an impact, and the effects of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and associated disruption to school operations are huge.

A recent survey by the Equal Opportunities Commission found that 44.6 per cent of school-age children named school as a factor with an “extremely or fairly negative impact on mental health”. Therefore, it makes sense to put more resources into schools, where young people can access them more readily.

A recent Post opinion piece suggested that overcentralisation of the already limited support services available to young people is a barrier to its effectiveness. The government should be working closely with schools to improve and decentralise mental health support.

Structural changes to the high-stakes, exam-oriented education system in Hong Kong are unlikely to happen any time soon. However, suggestions such as incorporating social-emotional education courses into the curriculum have been put forward.

Mick Cooper, a professor of counselling psychology in Britain, has described school counselling as “a non-stigmatising, accessible and effective form of early intervention, which ensures that every young person has someone to talk to in times of trouble”.

I want to suggest that developing school counselling would be an effective way of supporting the mental health of young people in the city by providing a school-level service which is tailored to their specific needs.

School counsellors are specifically trained to support young people in school settings. They are embedded into schools, understand the culture and practices of schools and can offer a range of services for students and their families. For example, they can deliver programmes of social-emotional education, run parent workshops and conduct teacher training.

Most importantly, school counsellors can offer individual and small group counselling for young people who are experiencing a wide range of problems. Research we have carried out in Hong Kong indicates that such individual counselling has a significant positive impact on the well-being of secondary school students.

The government has allocated resources to schools in the form of more social workers in recent years, and this is to be commended. However, this policy does not tap into the valuable resource of school counselling and fails to recognise the important distinction between social workers and counsellors, who have different skill sets and provide different services.

Elsewhere in the world, including in Asia, school counselling is a well-established part of what schools do, but Hong Kong lags far behind. There are several programmes offered by universities in Hong Kong at bachelor’s and master’s level which train school counsellors, yet graduates of these programmes often fail to secure jobs in schools where they are able to use their training effectively.

Counselling graduates might be employed as “student guidance personnel” and are often given trivial, administrative jobs. They can also be treated as teaching assistants, usually playing second fiddle to “guidance teachers” and social workers.

Often, they are line-managed by members of staff with little or no background in what school counselling is or what counsellors have to offer. Most school counsellors in local schools leave their low-paid, insecure posts after a short time to become teachers or social workers or to take up jobs in other industries.

Academics in the field of counselling in Hong Kong have called on the government to recognise school counselling as a distinct professional role with an entry requirement of a master’s-level counselling degree and membership of a professional body.

Ultimately, the introduction of a “one school social worker and one school counsellor for each school” policy in Hong Kong would tap into what is currently a badly underutilised resource.

Models of school counselling such as those of the American School Counselor Association and the International School Counseling Association see counsellors as important members of staff taking on leadership roles to affect systemic change in their schools.

The government should enlist the help of school principals who can empower counsellors. Without their support, counsellors will remain marginalised and underutilised. Principals are well placed to communicate the importance of counsellors to parents and students, as well as to build a school climate where counselling is normalised and the stigma around mental health is reduced.

The positive effects of school counselling are well established by research. Young people in Hong Kong would benefit greatly from the kind of positive and supportive relationships that good school counsellors can provide.

A partnership between the government, school principals, social workers and school counsellors might enable this untapped yet valuable resource to make a real difference to our young people.

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