Budget 2019 has included initiatives to address child obesity in New Zealand with a $47.6 million programme to promote healthy eating and physical activity in schools. All schools and early learning centres will be supported to deliver change with new resources and guidance, health promotion staff, and school physical activity advisors.

The Budget has also extended the nurses in schools programme to a further 5,600 students by commencing the rollout to decile five secondary schools at a cost of $19.6 million over four years. Additional funding will also enhance the existing programme in decile 1-4 schools.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says evidence shows that when students have more time with on-site professionals there is significantly less depression and suicide risk.

“Early intervention works. We want to provide our young people with support and early intervention as they learn to cope with the pressures that come with becoming a young adult.”

However, the NZ Association of Counsellors is scathing about the initiative. President Bev Weber says that by prioritising the expansion of nurses in schools over investing more in school guidance counsellors, the government has demonstrated a lack of understanding when it comes to enhancing the mental wellbeing of secondary school students.

All the evidence points to the fact that school students trust and prefer talking to school guidance counsellors if and when they are dealing with emotional wellness and mental wellbeing issues, says Weber.

She says school guidance counsellors are in huge demand and under ever-increasing pressures because of the growing number of students presenting with emotional wellness issues – and the increasingly serious nature of those issues. Guidance counsellors in some secondary schools are dealing with over 1,000 students and managing issues ranging from drug and alcohol abuse and family violence to suicidal behaviours.

Dr Dougal Sutherland, Clinical Psychologist, Victoria University of Wellington says the expansion of nurses into secondary schools for a further 5,600 students is a good start but unlikely to be enough.

“Innovative initiatives will need to be considered such as e-therapies and prevention programmes targeted at children and teens. It may be that the soon to be re-established Mental Health & Wellbeing Commission will be given the task of considering how to expand services outside the current one-to-one intensive, in-person model.”

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