By: Scott Yeoman

Evelyn Probert, from the Bay of Plenty Therapy Foundation, says counsellors are needed in primary schools to address mental health issues earlier. Photo/John Borren

A Tauranga counsellor says she is seeing increasing levels of anxiety in children and would like counsellors to be brought into primary schools to address the issues earlier.

Evelyn Probert from the Bay of Plenty Therapy Foundation, which has been providing free counselling for 25 years this month, said she is seeing more boys aged between 7 and 10 with anxiety, and a lot of teenage girls with depression and anxiety.

“It seems to be getting worse,” she said.

Ms Probert said most high schools had their own counsellors, but more professional support was needed to help families earlier.

“Because we’re seeing more mental health issues at a young age and these kids are missing out.”

While the Social Workers in Schools programme was in place at some lower socio-economic primary schools, she said, most schools did not have that programme or a counsellor available.

The result was often issues like ADHD or anxiety, which on the surface just looked like a child being defiant and naughty.

Ms Probert said reports of misbehaviour in the classroom had increased in recent years.

There also needed to be more parenting programmes available for new mums and dads, she said.

The foundation had 14 counsellors and one psychologist and, in the year ended June 30, worked with 154 children under the age of 18 and 139 adults.

Of those receiving counselling, last year 29 per cent were 17 or younger. So far this year it has increased to 37 per cent.

Ms Probert works with puppets to help the children feel more relaxed and sometimes uses art therapy to help them share their problems.

“It’s on their mind but it’s hard to talk about it,” she said. “It’s easier to see on the page or whiteboard.”

The therapy foundation recently launched a pilot programme at Brookfield Primary School focusing on anxiety in children.

The school’s special education needs coordinator, Barbara Phillips, had noticed quite a high number of students experiencing moderate to high levels of anxiety.

“This can affect their ability to learn, form and maintain friendships, understand and manage their emotions,” she said.

“Our school realised the need to deal with anxiety issues when the children are young and not allow anxieties to develop into major mental health issues as the children grow up.”

She said the programme had enabled small groups of children to understand their own feelings and start to learn and practise ways to cope with anxiety.

It was very important to have the parents and caregivers involved as well, as this ensured their support.

All parents and caregivers involved had reported a reduced level of concern as a result of the programme, she said.

“Teachers have noticed students using their strategies in class and in the playground. As the students become more confident using the strategies, their self-esteem and confidence improve.”

She said the school wanted to continue with the programme and highly recommended it to other schools.

Ms Probert said she and her colleagues were also dealing with other “huge new issues” stemming from homelessness, poverty and the cost of housing.

One of the main consequences was family violence.

She said with a lot of people coming to Tauranga from outside the area, they did not have established networks and support systems when issues arose.

“We’re also counselling young people from 18 to 24 who have got nowhere to live, so we’re trying to get them back on track.”

She said there were long waiting lists in Tauranga for that kind of social service.

“We do need more people and more funding with what’s going on out there. It’s sad to see.”

The difference between the “haves and have nots” had never been clearer, Ms Probert said.

“For the first time I’m seeing people living in a car in Bayfair mall. I’ve never seen that in my lifetime in New Zealand.”

She has lived in Tauranga for more than 20 years.

The foundation is currently looking for a patron as a way to get the work they are doing more well-known in the community.

“That’s part of the Kiwi thing where you don’t talk about your mental health or family violence but it is changing now,” Ms Probert said.

Earlier this week it was announced that a pilot programme would be launched to have counsellors in primary schools.

The move was revealed in the Labour-New Zealand First coalition policy announcement.

The Bay of Plenty Therapy Foundation was started in 1992 by a small group of counsellors and therapists who saw a big gap for people who could not afford therapy.

Since then it has largely operated under the radar and survives thanks to funding from organisations like TECT Trust, Trillion Trust, Acorn Foundation, Legacy Trust, Bay Trust, and the ANZ Staff Foundation.

It also receives funding from the Ministry of Social Development and Ministry for Vulnerable Children, Oranga Tamariki.

The foundation provides funded counselling for families who are having difficulties and are unable to afford professional support.

Approved clients get between five to 13 hours of counselling sessions.

Earlier this week Rotorua Principals Association president and Rotokawa School principal Briar Stewart said there was “such a big need” for counsellors in primary schools.

The Government move to address child mental health and behavioural issues by piloting counsellors in primary schools was “an acknowledgement of the difficulties our children face and we are pleased to see children being made a priority”, Mr Stewart told NZME.

Source: NZ Herald

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