A SCHOOL counsellor may not teach but they hold an important role in schools.
They are the ones providing a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on for troubled students.
This can be more important for a student, especially with the rising number of youths facing mental health issues across the world.
Locally, the National Health and Morbidity Survey 2017 found that one in five youths suffered from depression and 10% have had suicidal thoughts.
“The state of students’ mental well-being has reached a worrying stage.
“Although the number of referrals to professionals is not that high, the number of students showing symptoms as young as 13 is very worrying, ” says SMK Bandar Baru Sentul, Kuala Lumpur, school counsellor Khairul Azmarizan Abdul Majid.
She says there has been many students who suddenly burst out crying in class or are zoned out and teachers are not sure if it’s substance abuse or extreme mental stress causing these outbursts.
“Teachers quickly refer these students to us when they notice anything even slightly out of the ordinary.”
Khairul Azmarizan says that counsellors focus on why a student is behaving badly, a skill regular teachers lack.
“They are not trained to see the reason students behave in a certain way, ” she says.
Dealing with the students is sometimes not easy, adds SMK Dato’ Ibrahim Yaacob, Kuala Lumpur, school counsellor Juwairiah Abdullah.
“Even though our faces show calmness, our insides are churning, ” says Juwairiah as she recalls a case of a student who felt no girl will ever like him.
The boy’s story tugged at her heartstrings as she tried to figure out how to convince him that he might still find the love of his life one day.
“It’s not only the aggressive students who face mental health issues but also those who are very quiet, ” adds Khairul Azmarizan.
The counsellor says it is very sad that these students do not get enough attention from their parents, with some parents blaming the child for the behaviour and some cannot come to terms if s/he has a problem.
Still, with lots of patience and explanation, a school counsellor is able to gain the support of a parent and get the child the help they desperately need, says Juwairiah.
She also says that she has had parents come to her and say they do not know what to do with their child anymore.
“Parents expect us to help because they are at their wit’s end, ” she explains, adding that those from the lower-income groups may not have the right parenting skills to deal with the situation.
It has come to the point that Juwairiah has had to teach and “counsel” the parent, sometimes for up to two hours. “My sessions with the students are only half an hour, ” she adds.
Then, there are the parents who are impossible to meet. Juwairiah says she has been waiting for a year to meet a parent of a student who refuses to talk or make eye contact in class.
Awareness among students has certainly risen and this can be seen in the increase in students visiting the school counsellor.
Khairul Azmarizan says that an average of 1, 200 students visit the school counsellor a year at her school.
This includes those who are disciplinary cases or are categorised as vulnerable in the various prevention activities conducted by the school’s Counselling and Guidance Unit.
“I can say that the number of pupils in need of our services increases about 2% each year, ” she adds.
However, she points out, this is not indicative of a rise in the number of students experiencing mental health issues.
Rather, she adds, it is because more students understand the importance of counselling services.
These include small matters like dropping a subject in SPM, which a teacher or parent can advise on, says Khairul Azmarizan.
We have four counsellors but this is not enough, she says, adding that she wishes there are more counsellors stationed in schools as they cannot cope with the number of students seeking help.
Education Ministry school management division deputy director Faridah Yang Razali says that the current ratio of students to school counsellors in secondary schools is 500:1 whereas it’s 350:1 in primary schools.
“Last time it (mental health) was not a major issue but now, we need to increase awareness so that all our teachers receive the proper training to screen the students, ” she adds.
Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman Community Counselling Centre chairperson Pheh Kai Shuen says teachers and school counsellors may alleviate low mood, suicidal thoughts, and anxiety symptoms of adolescents by actively listening to them non-judgmentally.
“School teachers and counsellors can be very helpful on a wide range of mental health challenges faced by adolescents, ” he adds.
“We believe that the mental health issues of children should not only be the responsibility of psychiatrists and psychologists but also the schools, ” he says.
“It is a difficult task to get students to understand that they need to change but it’s a heavy burden that all school counsellors carry, ” says Khairul Azmarizan.
“We don’t take care of their IQ but of their EQ.”