THE SCOTTISH Government has been told there are “insufficient numbers” of qualified counsellors to cater for Scotland’s schools amid a soar in mental health referrals for young people during the lockdown.

MSPs have also been warned that “there must not be any further delays” in implementing the Scottish Government’s commitment for a dedicated counsellor to be in every high school, now set to be rolled out by the end of October.

Statistics released last week revealed that those waiting more than a year for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) in Scotland has almost doubled during the lockdown – with 1,136 children and young people waiting to start treatment at the end of June, compared to 581 in June 2019.

Less than 60 per cent of young people who start treatment are being seen with 18 weeks against a Scottish Government target of 90 per cent.

The Scottish Government has restated its commitment to have a dedicated counsellor in every high school by the end of next month – a policy that Nicola Sturgeon has stressed “is on track”.

Hannah Brisbane, public affairs assistant for the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH), has stated that the charity welcomed the commitment for qualified counsellors to be accessible to every school – but warned there can be “no further delays” in bringing in the scheme.

She said: “These benefits have never been more important given the severe impact of the coronavirus pandemic on children and young people’s mental health.

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“While we understand the disruption caused by the pandemic and the closure of schools, SAMH is clear that there must not be any further delays to the implementation of school-based counselling beyond October 2020.

“Children and young people urgently need access to mental health support, such as school-based counselling. This is underpinned by the latest figures on CAMHS referrals, which show there was a 55 per cent drop in referrals in the quarter ending June 2020, suggesting that unmet need for support has been building in the last few months.”

She added: “In addition to this, our written submission in February also raised some questions on the model of delivery that will be used by local authorities.

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“We would be interested to know if there will be consistency in delivery across Scotland, as our research shows that consistency of delivery is important for ensuring equity of access for all children and young people.

“Similarly, we would like the Scottish Government to clarify whether it has provided direction to local authorities on delivery, and if so, what model of delivery has been implemented.”

Children’s mental health charity, Place2Be, has warned that the Covid-19 crisis has illustrated “even further the need for school-based support”, with pupils now back in classrooms full time.

In a submission to MSPs, Catherine Henderson, added: Our approach has always been to see counselling working alongside school-wide options such as a self referral service, open to all pupils, and group interventions – supporting pupils for whom 1:1 counselling would not be appropriate.

“Alongside direct delivery inside schools we feel that it is essential that school staff feel confident in how they can best support and respond to the mental health needs of pupils in order to create the culture change required to improve young people’s wellbeing and in turn, support families.

“With Covid-19 now part of our lives for the foreseeable future, it is essential that counselling services in schools are able to adapt their working models to online as and when needed.”

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In a submission to Holyrood’s education committee, The Spark, which is the largest provider of school-based counselling services in Scotland, has warned that there are simply not enough qualified counsellors for the policy to be rolled out.

The organisation said: “Although the circumstances weren’t ideal, the pandemic has shown that school counselling services can be successfully delivered on a digital platform. This might be a good option for schools to continue their counselling delivery during school holidays.

“We believe that there are insufficient numbers of qualified, quality counsellors to deliver the Scottish Government commitment re school counselling.

“With our experience over the last few years, we have built a solid reputation and the demand for our services is greater than our availability of counsellors. At the Spark we believe that counselling taking place in a school environment should be short term, solution focused interventions.”

Ms Sturgeon acknowledged there has been a soaring demand for mental health support during the Covid-19 crisis and pledged that enough counsellors will be available for high schools.

She said: “The commitment we have made to put counsellors into secondary schools across the country is on track – it's due to be completed by the end of October.

“There’s an enormous demand for mental health services – there was pre-Covid, there certainty is during and as we continue to go through Covid.

“The objectives we had set to transform and reform the shape of CAHMS services, particularly to have a much greater service on prevention and early intervention, becomes even more important – and the school counsellors programme is an important part of that.”

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman added: “Clare Haughey, our minister for mental health, has done a great deal of work trying to make sure we can retain some of the areas of very good practice that came forward as a consequence of the early months of the pandemic – that includes the mental health crisis centre that works so effectively in Glasgow and looking to see that spread elsewhere."

Ms Freeman added that the Scottish Government's mental health mobilisation plans have a "particular focus on children and young people" and caters for "whatever the level of mental health distress that anyone of us is facing".