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Unitec |Te Pūkenga research highlights perception of school counsellors a barrier for secondary school ākonga

  • Depressed student

18 July 2023

Ground-breaking research into ākonga views of counselling services at secondary schools in Aotearoa New Zealand has shown a general reluctance to get mental health support from school counsellors, particularly among male ākonga.

Nigel Pizzini, a lecturer in the School of Healthcare and Social Practice at Unitec | Te Pūkenga, consulted with more than 500 secondary school ākonga throughout Aotearoa/New Zealand in September 2022, to gauge their views on the services offered by their school counsellors.

His research found that less than 17 per cent had used the services of a school counsellor, and those who did were mainly female. Nigel says this low engagement rate, especially among males, is largely due to a lack of understanding about counselling, wait times and processes to access counsellors, stigma associated with seeking help and a general mistrust of adults projected onto school counselling services.

"One  ākonga described their visit to a counsellor as a walk of shame." says Nigel. “Peer pressure and societal attitudes often put them off seeking help, but there can be significant impacts if ākonga don’t have easy and timely access to a counsellor.”

This concern has been a key driver behind his research and commitment to support schools and their counsellors to better meet the emotional and mental wellbeing of ākonga.

“It’s important that our rangatahi experience meaningful and effective support as they navigate the challenges of being a teenager in the 21st century,” says Nigel. “School counsellors play a crucial role in this, when their work is supported, valued and resourced. Having positive experiences of support helps build confidence to turn to counsellors or other helping professionals in future times of need.”

Although Nigel’s research focused on identifying issues uniquely experienced by male ākonga, his research also explored barriers to access for all ākonga. Once completed, Nigel plans to use his findings to lobby the Ministry of Education to increase counsellor staffing levels and highlight best practice in the nation’s secondary schools to help improve engagement.

“I dedicate myself, on behalf of the nearly 600 high school ākonga involved in my research to inspire change in the promotion, recruitment, training and practice of counselling in Aotearoa New Zealand High Schools. “I was absolutely delighted with how serious, insightful and generous ākonga were with their stories, ideas and feedback,” says Nigel. “Their voices need to be heard.”

Facilitative Factors

Nigel says that having positive relationships with a range of people is crucial to every young person’s wellbeing. His research found that school counsellors are skilled and highly trained and, as members of staff, are uniquely positioned to offer significant assistance to students in times of need.

“I’ve heard and also experienced, a lot of good stuff from our counsellors and the students telling me about it. I’ve heard that they’re quite good and they support you pretty well.” (Male, Year 12)

Having access to male staff (counsellors, youth workers or teacher aids) was meaningful for many of the male ākonga surveyed.

“(He was) …approachable because he was… more like a mate. If you have someone like an adult who’s kind of like someone you might get along with… Just like one of the bros, they’re young and one of the bro’s. It’s easy to talk with someone when you’re comfortable with them. Like, you’re on the same vibe.” (Male, Year 12)

Courage, relatability and confidentiality are key

“One of the key findings of my research is that it can take a lot of courage to ask to see the school counsellor because it’s almost unavoidably a public undertaking within a school community,” says Nigel. “It’s important that school counsellors have the capacity to follow up requests in a timely way. Time delays between that request and actually getting to see a counsellor are often upsetting or a deterrent, therefore appointment notifications need to be carefully considered from the ākonga's point of view.”

Other perceptions around school counselling services revealed by the research includes:

- Cultural relationships are essential: It’s important, especially for males, to have a counsellor they can relate to, including age, ethnicity and a nuanced understanding of social pressures. This encourages relatability and avoids misinterpretation. A commonly asked question is, “Do they understand my situation?”

(Youth worker) he doesn’t seem like a teacher… he just seems like a person. I’ve seen him randomly at cafes around where I live and I’ll just talk to him randomly… and he’s just one of those guys you can feel more open towards.  If (the Youth Worker) was a counsellor I feel like that would make a lot more boys (willing to see a counsellor) because he’s connected with a bunch of the boys around the school. If he was counsellor that would make them feel more open.” (Male, Year 12)

Ākonga showed a strong degree of wariness towards school counsellors: Based on experiences of adults “taking over” aspects of their lives or imposing interventions, students were unclear about what the counsellor might do with the information they hear. Because of this, they were likely to censor what they discussed with counsellors. They also revealed a need for more understanding about how change happens through counselling.

“It’s hard to talk to the counsellor about it because they will most likely call someone, or tell your parents, or take it further than that. So, I think that telling the counsellors really big issues is hard, because you don’t know what they’re going to do about it." (Male, Year 12)

Confidentiality and building trust are important, as is gaining ākonga understanding and consent when other adults do need to be brought in to support them. Ākonga are scathing of reports of counsellors notifying home, teachers, Deans or others without fully understanding the need and benefit to the ākonga.

“In Year 9, I wanted to go to the counsellor, but I was scared to because I thought that if I said anything wrong or concerning it would affect how they treat me in school, like education wise. Like schoolwork would be easier or something like that because I was struggling with my mental health or something like that. That was one of my biggest concerns, so kind of kept me back from going for a while.” (Female, Year 10)

General lack of awareness around the services and assistance available. Many ākonga were unclear how to show they wanted to speak with their school counsellor or how appointments were arranged at their school. Others reported a preference to access anonymous support, but didn't know how to access it, or felt they couldn’t because they lived in a rural area.

"There's multiple methods (to request an appointment) but they're not very well communicated, so it's kind of hard to find out. But unless you really like communicate it, and a lot of people who don't really want it to be known that they're going, they find it hard to go, because it's hard to find out how to get there. It’s hard to find out." (Male Year 12)

- A perception that school counsellors are only available for "serious issues". Many ākonga felt that their concerns weren't significant enough to trouble the counsellor with. This contributes to a perception that you have to be ‘crazy’ or significantly struggling to see a counsellor, adding to stigma and shame, especially for males.

"In my experience at least, I got the idea that it’s (my concerns/issues) not bad enough. Whereas girls’ standards are a lot lower than our standards (and more) willing to take it more seriously." (Male, Year 10)

- Lack of understanding about what school counsellors do; what their experience and qualifications are and whether they are ‘real’ counsellors, like those in community agencies.

“I’ve never thought about going because I don’t know a lot about how it works, and I wouldn’t know what to talk about, what I can say and what I can’t. I guess, I really don’t know how it works and like how they can help with anything.” (Female, Year 10)

- Experiences of female and male ākonga differ. Many male ākonga don’t tend to reach out to anybody if they need to discuss an issue or problem, including whānau and friends. They are more likely to do something to change their state, including kicking a ball, going for a run, listening to music or going on social media. Many confided in people they engaged with on social media or through gaming.

“My Dad’s against counselling. He feels like males should just be able to toughen up and forget about it. Recently I had to go (to the school counsellor) but because I’m still 16 they said I need a parent to give their consent and so when he came down to school, he got really mad at me for going.” (Male, Year 12)

Research has support of industry which advocates early intervention

Nigel’s research has been supported by industry, including the New Zealand Association of Counsellors (NZAC). Association President Sarah Maindonald says, “As an organisation, we’re indebted to Nigel and Unitec for revealing the overt and hidden barriers that exist for ranhatahi seeking vital mental health support via school counselling. “Developmentally, teenagers are growing their sense of independence so they can find it harder to reach out when they need help. This research offers a way forward for our youth in order to reduce tragic losses due to suicide and lack of positive connection.

“NZAC has been advocating a 1:400 ratio minimum of counsellor to ākonga for many years,” adds Sarah.

“Hopefully with Nigel' s contribution, those in positions of power may choose to act before we lose one more life. School Counsellors make a positive difference in the lives of young people and we all know early intervention works.”

Nigel has recently presented his preliminary findings at the 19th International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry in Illinois, USA, where it was positively received.

His research was funded by an Early Career Research grant through Unitec - Te Pūkenga with additional funding from the New Zealand Association of Counsellors.

Nigel Pizzini Nigel has his own practice, Narrative Pathways, specialising in counselling for boys, teenagers, men and families and is a Member registered with the New Zealand Association of Counsellors (MNZAC). He lectures in Social Practice at Unitec’s Waitākere campus and is a seasoned media commentator.

Research methodology

In Term 3, 2022, two-day site visits were conducted at seven co-educational state secondary schools (Years 9 – 13) representing rural and urban communities in Northland, Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury, West Coast and Southland, and spanning a range of socio-economic demographics. At each school, one co-ed class from Year 10 and another from Year 12 were invited to complete a hard-copy survey. In addition, four focus groups were held with groups of 10 ākonga (Year 10 males, Year 10 females, Year 12 males and Year 12 females). The focus groups were recorded and the transcripts were thematically analysed.