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Jaevion Nelson: Guidance counsellors falling short

Published:Thursday | January 14, 2016 | 1:00 AMJaevion Nelson, Contributor

It is an absolute shame that for many students, the guidance counsellor is the last person they would go to for support or assistance when they need it most. This has been the case for as long as I can remember and, seemingly, not much has been done to correct this situation. We desperately need to come to a consensus that professionals such as guidance counsellors who are employed to care for and support our children must be held accountable and cannot be allowed to do as they choose/desire, when they choose/desire to, with our children.

Many students prefer to suffer in silence than subject themselves to persons who will, instead of helping them, make matters worse. Some end up seeking refuge in the wrong places.

At a forum organised by the Child Development Agency (CDA) late last year to discuss the findings of the survey on bullying in our schools, a student from a prominent high school in Kingston remarked that guidance counsellors weren't trustworthy or helpful. There was loud applause in the room. Why? I suspect it is because we all agreed and knew that many of them preached the gospel more than supported and counselled our students. Sadly, there has not been much discussion about this over the years. One hopes this will not be another nine-day wonder.

I am not surprised that there has been a deafening silence among the vast majority of our leaders since news broke that guidance counsellors are refusing to help gay and lesbian students. However, Kamina Johnson-Smith's very poignant post on Facebook must not go unnoticed.

 

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"That students have a caring adult to whom they can turn for advice in any circumstance is very important for healthy student life in any modern society - especially one such as ours where lots of parenting gaps exist. Children are children, and with all the influences and confusing messages sent to children and young people today, with all the challenges of gaps and lack of support in homes, if a child cannot turn to a guidance counsellor for advice or even just a listening ear, regardless of the type of problem, concern, or source of confusion, then the system is missing the point ..."

As a high school student, neither of the two guidance counsellors employed by my school was considered to discuss problems at home, being confused, feeling ugly and unworthy, not having a girlfriend, or being sexually active. I heard enough stories from classmates and friends (sometimes teachers), and I knew I could do without the betrayal and preaching. Consequently, I kept my problems to myself, and to this very day, believe that it is always the preferred option when an issue arises to seclude oneself and deal with it on one's own. I am sure there are many Jamaicans like me.

Guidance counsellors are a critical resource in our schools. I won't hasten to label them as homophobic (not that many of them aren't in fact homophobic). I strongly believe that many of them are also not equipped to address the issues gay and lesbian students as well as other students from minority groups are bombarded with.

As Neish McLean of TransWave - an organisation focusing on transgender issues suggests - they must "be informed and provide support for students of all sexual orientation, and gender identities, including those who are transgender and non-conforming. It is important for educators to be properly trained and sensitised to their students' needs as well if they are to be fully effective in their roles. Many gay, lesbian, transgender, and gender non-conforming students often struggle with their sexual orientation and gender identity and are adversely affected by depression and suicidal tendencies. These students are in great need of guidance and will, therefore, need them."

The Ministry of Education, guidance counsellors association, and J-FLAG should work together to address this grave issue. I recommend that all three parties collaborate on the following:

1. a situational analysis to better understand the challenges students and guidance counsellors face where LGBT and other diversity issues are concerned;

2. A review of the curriculum at guidance counsellor training institutions and the provision of recommendations where applicable;

3. a needs assessment to determine the kind of support guidance counsellors will need;

4. The design of interventions such as sensitivity training.

- Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV, and human rights advocate. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jaevion@gmail.com.