Teachers say nurses in NSW schools should not replace counsellors

Teachers say nurses in NSW schools should not replace counsellors

The placement of 100 nurses in schools across NSW has been welcomed by mental health experts but the teachers' union says the nurses should not replace counsellors, who remain in short supply across the system.

The NSW Department of Education has announced it would spend $46.8 million to embed 100 nurses in schools to support students with general and mental health issues.

About 100 nurses will be deployed in school across NSW over the next four years.

About 100 nurses will be deployed in school across NSW over the next four years.Credit:iStock

Professor Ian Hickie, co-director of the University of Sydney's Brain and Mind Centre, said the move could "effectively build a partnership between the health and education systems" in a time when mental health issues are accelerating among young people.

"All the data we have shows there are increasing rates of mental health problems and self-harm, particularly in young women, and that has accelerated in the past five years pre-COVID," he said.


"All our modelling shows this is worse after COVID-19, so there is the need for this."

However, he said the move would be successful if the problems detected by the nurses in schools were then able to be referred to and managed effectively by specialists in the health system.

"You're not looking to build a separate health system in the education system, you have to make sure the nurses are able to work as part of a health team," Professor Hickie said.

"The burden to do this is currently on teachers and it's entirely unreasonable to expect teachers to be doing mental health work."

He said further training in working within schools for the nurses would also be critical.


Deputy president of the NSW Teachers' Federation Henry Rajendra said teachers and principals would "definitely welcome any professional health expertise" but the nurses should not replace school counsellors.

"On average, there's one counsellor for every 750 students," he said.

"Counsellors are people who have dual qualifications as a teacher and a psychologist so they have that specific expertise that draws together the two disciplines and are best placed to provide that assistance to students.

"It's all well and good to have nurses in schools, but we need both."

A recent survey of more than 5300 teachers and principals conducted by the federation found only 20 per cent of all schools and 4 per cent of primary schools had a school counsellor on-site every day.

It also found more than a quarter of students had to wait at least four weeks to see a counsellor.

"Our schools are chronically understaffed when it comes to counsellors," Mr Rajendra said, calling for the ratio to be improved to at least one counsellor for every 500 students.

The decision to fund more nurses in schools follows a successful pilot program that placed nurses in six regional schools between 2018 and this year.

"With the pilot program, we saw that school children often go and see the nurse about general health issues and once they are there, open up about other problems they have been experiencing,” Minister for Mental Health Bronnie Taylor said.

“The nurses will be given mental health training but are also there to deliver general health care and advice at the right time."

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