Guidance grief - Counsellors in schools under pressure as students face even greater trauma
There are concerns that the increasing incidents of mental-health issues and conduct disorder among Jamaica's children are putting scores of guidance counsellors under pressure as they are not equipped to deal with the new challenges brought on by the current generation of students.
Senior lecturer in clinical social work, Dr Claudette Crawford-Brown, who has been working with traumatised children for more than 36 years, says she gets a call every month from a stressed-out guidance counsellor seeking her help.
"I was called to a school and the guidance counsellor was totally stressed out. She has people calling her at home, she is overwhelmed. They are calling her at home, because somebody got shot and the child ran away," said Crawford-Brown, who is attached to the Department of Sociology, Psychology and Social Work at the University of the West Indies, Mona.
"The number of persons killed, and parents killed, and trauma that our children are experiencing, whether it is child abuse, sexual abuse, violence, shooting, murders, exposure to violence ... that will undoubtedly cause children to have specific behavioural and emotional problems, and I do not think we are meeting that challenge sufficiently in terms of the training of persons on the ground," added Brown.
She told The Sunday Gleaner that the treating of trauma is not something a guidance counsellor is fully equipped to do.
According to Brown, a team approach is needed where the members of the team will identify the issues and then refer the child to a professional, such as a psychiatrist or a clinical social worker.
"The guidance counsellors are trained to give guidance, to teach how to choose your career, how to guide a child in terms of their academics. The problems that are occurring in the schools are now much deeper. You have now children experiencing serious trauma," said Brown.
"They already have a curriculum that they are assigned, the Health and Family Life Education," noted the clinical social worker.
Guidance counsellor Paul Harding said that while persons in his profession are increasingly taking advantage of opportunities to better equip themselves to deal with the myriad issues facing children, the demand for intervention is overwhelming.
"We cannot handle the volume of cases that comes to us," admitted Harding.
"Guidance counsellors are not supposed to be persons who diagnose and treat. When we identify issues, we are supposed to refer. A lot of our tools in trade prepare us to identify issues of aggression and problems dealing with post-traumatic stress.
"We can deal with basic counselling, but as soon as it gets to the point where it might require intervention of a detailed nature, then it has to be referred. Otherwise we get into problems," said Harding, who has been a guidance counsellor for the last eight years at a public high school.
But while guidance counsellors are expected to only be first responders, there is a chronic shortage of certified professionals specially trained to deal with trauma and social disorders in children.
The child guidance clinic, for example, is generally oversubscribed, and it was revealed earlier this year that Jamaica's ratio of psychiatrist to patient is 1:1,582 while the international standard is 1:150.
"More of us are taking advantage of training opportunities to further equip ourselves and become more clinical in diagnosing and treating so we can become like psychologists and do more psychotherapy," said Harding.
"It is because of the needs that exist, that is why we are really doing that. But when we really do that, many of use tend to then leave the strictly speaking purview of guidance and counselling and we might go off into more private practice and/or into specific areas that deal with psychotherapy," he added.
But counsellor and educator Dr Grace Kelly believes the roles and functions of guidance counsellors are clear, and they need to stick to this.
"There is no need for a guidance counsellor to be trying to be a psychologist or a social worker. Those are three distinct professions and each should work within his/her competence and then make appropriate referrals where there is a need. So there is no need for guidance counsellors to be trying to be all things to all people," said Kelly.
"They should never try to go beyond their training and their boundaries. What needs to happen is that the education sector needs to outfit the schools with the proper skill sets and competences needed to support the children, and if there isn't enough persons to work in the child's guidance clinic, then send persons to be trained," said Kelly, a former president of the Jamaica Association of Guidance Counsellors in Education.
She is convinced that Jamaica's children are better served when the various professionals stick to their areas of competency.
"If you are driving and your car breaks down and the only place that exists for you to get help is a carpenter shop, would you take your car to a carpenter? If you have to use a wrecker, you are likely to take it to a mechanic, not a carpenter. We cannot treat our children as if they are some experiment," added Kelly.