School Chaplains – a psychologist’s perspective
Having trained for eight years to become a psychologist and having spent the last 11 years working in the area of child and adolescent mental health, I have been watching the developments of the National School Chaplaincy Program with interest.
For the uninitiated, chaplains are employed by the Federal Government to provide spiritual guidance for those students seeking it in a secular environment; however, they often end up in essentially counselling roles. To quote from a Queensland chaplaincy employment agency’s website, a requirement of chaplains is to: “demonstrate a living and personal relationship with Jesus Christ” and “provide social, emotional and spiritual support to students, parents and staff”.
Although chaplains have been in state schools since 2006, the National School Chaplaincy Program has recently become more visible following the Federal Government’s strange decision this budget to inject a quarter of a billion dollars into the program while simultaneously stripping $30 billion dollars from the education sector overall.
My beef with the funding of the National School Chaplaincy Program is threefold: chaplains are relatively poorly trained; the program is poorly regulated; and young people have never been so in need of proper mental health support in schools.
Treating mental health problems is complex, and for a range of reasons, this is especially true in the case of young people. To name a few complications: issues of confidentiality are trickier because of capacity for consent, children typically lack the autonomy over their own circumstances afforded to adults, and mental health problems in young people overlap with multiple, rapidly-unfolding, normal developmental changes.
Whereas a psychologist must complete a minimum of six years of university training and heavily supervised practice, and school counsellors and youth workers typically require years of training also, a chaplain can be employed by a Queensland school with a Certificate IV in Youth Work obtained over one year at a college.
In addition to their level of training, psychologists are also answerable to a national regulatory body that holds all registrants to the same set of high standards. This means that a certain level of knowledge, competence and ethical conduct can be expected from anyone in the country that earned use of the protected title of “psychologist”. Psychologists must also regularly undergo hours of different types of professional development activities in order to meet the requirements for their registration to be renewed on an annual basis. School chaplains, on the other hand, are not held to nearly this level of scrutiny or quality assurance.
Our kids are in trouble: suicide is the leading cause of death in young people 15-24 years old, and about 15 per cent of under-20s report having self-harmed at least once before! Consider that LGBTQI youth experience even higher rates of mental health problems (including suicidal thoughts), and that only a small portion of young people seek help from GPs and hospitals, and you start to realise the crucial roles that schools can play in being a young person’s first contact with mental health support.
Good and bad eggs are found in every vocation and profession; some chaplains have mounds of experience and training in child and adolescent mental health, and some holding the title of ‘psychologist’ would do harm to vulnerable young people. And, just like psychologists aren’t at schools to provide spiritual guidance, it shouldn’t be the case that chaplains are funded to do the work of better-trained mental health experts.