Kavin*, a student of Class 6 in a private school in Chennai, was bullied by his classmates for a long time. He did not know how to seek help for his predicament until recently when the school appointed a counselling psychologist to ensure the mental health and overall well-being of its students. When the counsellor observed bullying by a few students, she organised a successful group session for all school children in that age group. While her meetings with the children had a positive impact on their behaviour, it was short-lived as the counsellor had to quit the job owing to low pay and a heavy workload.
The spate of student suicides in Chennai recently has brought to the forefront the need to provide mental health support for the well-being of students. Though many schools have not appointed mental health professionals, in those that hire them, counsellors continue to face an array of challenges.
Common challenges faced by school counsellors
Mental health professionals work either on a part-time basis in different schools or full-time in one school.
Saranya A, a counselling psychologist who works in two different schools in Chennai, says that the lack of awareness of the mental health aspects, particularly among the teachers, is a major challenge. “Many teachers discourage children from meeting the counsellor during their class. They ask the child why they often visit the counsellor or ask the counsellor about the child’s problem. This is against the confidentiality clause and will discourage the child from approaching the counsellor because of the stigma attached to mental health issues.”
Unlike teachers who have a set timetable, in most schools, counselling psychologists are not given a particular time to meet with students. “This hampers their right to safe and holistic mental health advice. Also, counsellors who work in different schools find it hard to travel from one school to another and to adapt to their different internal cultures on the same day. The mental health professionals who work in one school find it easy to keep track of the students, while it’s a struggle for those who visit different institutions,” says Saranya.
Handling teachers and parents, a huge challenge
One of the school counsellor’s roles is to interact with parents and teachers, which can often be a tightrope walk.
“There is a strict rule in schools that teachers should not give harsh punishment to the students. A few students take advantage of this rule and behave out of line. In such cases, it becomes challenging for the teachers to handle the students and they seek help from counsellors to handle such students. In turn, there may be complaints about a particular teacher from multiple students,” says Saranya.
To address this issue, a workshop was organised for all the teachers in various schools titled, ‘The role of the teachers in shaping the well-being of the children.’ “It was a self-reflective workshop where teachers had to bring up what positive and negative impact they have created on the mental health of the students through their behaviours. Teachers spoke about how their unresolved issues in both personal and professional life reflected in their behaviour and impacted the students,” says Sharanya.
Similarly, handling parents is yet another challenge. Many parents are willing to make changes in their homes when counsellors address the issues that are taking a toll on their kids. “Parents who are going through personal issues are aware that their decisions impact their children. Sometimes, I refer those parents for individual sessions with private psychologists as the workload for us is too much, but parents rarely heed our advice,” she adds.
Heavy workload leads to burnout among counselling psychologists
School counsellors are often given work which does not come under their purview in school and this may affect their actual work.
According to Rita*, a counselling psychologist, who works in a private school in Chennai, school counsellors are often sent as substitute teachers to classrooms when the subject teachers are on leave. They are also given clerical work. “This is a challenge because counsellors are not trained in classroom management and children may not listen to them,” notes Rita.
Namrata, who works with a team of four counselling psychologists in her school, which has 400 students, says, “Having four counsellors helps share the workload, but the work gets more hectic as we have to run more programmes in parallel,” she says adding, “Each age group has different needs and when the workload is high, we may need to have a wait-list for those who require individual therapy sessions. Though this does not happen that often, the workload sometimes creates such situations,” she says.
In some schools, psychology teachers double up as counsellors. “A psychology teacher is supposed to grade students, whereas a counsellor is not. This creates a conflict,” she adds.
Clinical psychologists are registered with the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI) and have support systems, unlike counselling psychologists. “Although I have never personally experienced it, colleagues in other schools have shared instances of schools holding counsellors responsible if any untoward incident happens to a child. There is no support system. This can cause constant fear,” says Namrata.
All mental health practitioners should have supervision of some sort. “But most schools do not have a supervisor for school counsellors. They are left to figure out everything on their own,” she adds.
In many schools, there is only one mental health professional for all students, while in bigger schools, two different counsellors will handle the primary and middle classes, and high school and higher secondary classes. Saranya is the only counsellor in a school that has 1,500 students. On average, she handles six to seven students every day. In a week, at least two teachers come for counselling to her. In a month, she meets at least two parents. “While students in adolescent age take more time for counselling, the students below class seven take less time. It’s a lot of people to handle in a day,” she says.
The counsellors also run a risk of burnout due to extreme workloads. Often, they may quit their profession or change the profession in the long term.
Underpaid and underappreciated
On average, a mental health professional hired for a full-time job at private schools in Chennai gets paid anywhere between Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000, while the CBSE or ICSE schools pay around Rs 25,000 for freshers and around Rs 35,000 for experienced professionals.
Mental health professionals, who work part-time, get around Rs 10,000 a month per school, and they can barely handle two schools. Some private counselling organisations have tie-ups with several schools in Chennai and they hire counselling psychologists to go to these schools. Usually, the pay is quite low, so the quality also suffers. Counsellors say that in Bengaluru and Hyderabad, the pay for freshers is slightly better, at about Rs. 25,000.
Support system needed for school counsellors
Apart from the low pay scale and heavy workload, the mental health professionals who work in schools run the risk of facing the blame for the actions of students.
“In India, clinical psychologists have a registration number but counselling psychologists don’t. When a student ends their life, the counsellor is held responsible by parents and teachers. There is no code of ethics or support system that will protect the counsellors from these situations. This is a constant fear the school counsellors have even when they work with the best intentions,” says Namrata.
How to bridge the counselling gap to help students
Counselling experts suggest what schools can do:
- Have an adequate number of counsellors based on the size of the school.
- Counsellors must work closely with teachers throughout the year and every child observed and monitored. Teachers must discuss their observations with the counsellors and vice versa, for the student’s well-being.
- Work with teachers on expanding skills to handle situations within the classrooms apart from the regular disciplinary approach. (If a student) is going through depression or indicating self-harm, teachers, parents and counsellors along with school management must discuss how to handle such sensitive situations, and how to support that student keeping in mind their safety and well-being.
- Parents may be made aware that they can take up an issue with the respective counsellors or the teachers.
“Counsellors cannot work in isolation. We have to work with the teachers, the parents and the larger school community for the holistic well-being of the children. There will be drawbacks when the number of students in the school increases. In such cases, the schools that are unable to get counsellors may need to rely on the organisations that place mental health professionals in schools. Since these organisations have only a few counsellors, they will be able to provide only one or two counsellors for a school. The idea of training teachers with certain essential skills is one of the ways to go, given the shortage of mental health professionals who want to work in schools,” notes Namrata.
Recommendations to the government
The mental health professionals working in schools propose these key recommendations to improve the working conditions at the schools.
- Regularisation of the pay scale for the mental health professionals working in schools.
- Form ethical guidelines or a support space for the school counsellors to handle critical situations.
- Form guidelines to prevent the extreme workload of mental health professionals working in schools.
The vision of the mental health professionals in schools is to keep the safety and well-being of the students at the forefront. However, if they are not given a conducive working environment, this will have a direct impact on the students.
*names changed on request