School counsellors are the first line of defence when it comes to tackling mental health issues in school. They play a crucial role in identifying and addressing students’ social and emotional needs before it spins into a problem or issue.
We talked to two school counsellors serving in private schools in Kuala Lumpur and Kuching; Ng Jun Kiat and Kelly Lee to find out the lesser details on the role of school counsellors and whether schools are prepared and have the expertise and resources to address the growing mental health issues in Malaysia. In another mental health article published, we addressed the urgency to equip schools and institutions with the right personnel and address shortages of qualified counsellors in the field.
The pathway to become a school counsellor
In order to be certified as a school counsellor, there are at least three known routes that could be taken.
One possible route is enrolling into a Bachelor’s Degree program in counselling in public universities. Another is that a teacher can join an accredited program in counselling for teachers. And the last route is to graduate with a Master’s degree in Counselling. – Kelly Lee
A potential counsellor is required to serve the required number of hours to be a registered counsellor under the governing body, Lembaga Kaunselor Malaysia.
You would have to collect around 600 practical hours in order to be a registered counsellor in Malaysia. – Ng Jun Kiat
More Than Just Career Guidance
The counselling unit in a school is often associated with tackling problematic children and providing guidance on career choices. The role of school counsellors is more than just that.
A school counsellor’s main role is to facilitate individual and group counselling that led us to open a case report and continue managing cases.
At the same time, we stockpile counselling and mental health resources also coordinate events such as workshops assembly to create more awareness in the school premise i.e. suicide prevention training, anti-bullying campaign.
School counsellors are also involved in supervising peers internally and externally to further improve our quality of service. Ng Jun Kiat
Not all schools in Malaysia benefit from having a school counsellor on the premises. In 2019, reportedly the Lembaga Kaunselor Malaysia (LKM), governing body of licensed and registered counsellors in Malaysia fall short of their target of 11,000 counsellors. In light of the pandemic, postgraduate students are having difficulty graduating on time due to LKM’s requirement which exacerbates the shortages of counsellors and school counsellors nationwide.
Dealing With Mental Health Issues In Schools
Ideally, school counsellors should be able to identify brewing social and emotional needs of students, facilitate prevention and early intervention to at-risk students. It is crucial that they pick up on early warning signs, offer school-based prevention and universal interventions for students with mental health concerns.
Sometimes students come to see the counselor voluntarily when they’re experiencing difficulties. Students are assessed via questionnaires like the Depression, Anxiety, Stress Scale (DASS-21) and interviewed to check for symptoms. – Kelly Lee
At the same time, teachers who recognised students who are struggling would refer them to the counselling unit for further assistance.
Students who struggle with academic performance, attention, focusing, behavior issues and friendship will be referred to the counselling unit. – Ng Jun Kiat
There are more severe mental health issues that were also referred to by the teachers, exemplifying the sharp eyes of teachers in a classroom is a necessity to ensure no student is suffering in silence.
Teachers also referred cases of students with anxiety, depression, addiction, bullying, family issues, abuse, self-harm, suicide to the unit. – Kelly Lee
The holistic approach implemented in schools that involves both teaching staff and leadership team to promote mental health awareness and well-being shows the readiness of some schools in tackling mental health issues.
There are schools that focus on a holistic approach which includes pastoral care. In the context of mental health – teachers, nurses, counsellor and school leadership work together to promote mental health awareness and well-being. – Ng Jun Kiat
However, a school counselor’s hands are tied when students exhibit alarming symptoms and difficulty coping with issues.
If the student demonstrated symptoms or expressed difficulty coping with the issues, then we will evaluate the options and determine if external professional assistance is required. It is at the student/parents discretion whether they want to seek professional assistance (referring to clinical psychologists and psychiatrists) outside of school, but we will provide recommendations. – Kelly Lee
Even so, the persisting stigma surrounding the older generation may inhibit the student from accessing much needed help from external professional assistance.
I’ve heard from teachers and other school counselors that there are parents who refuse to send their kids to a mental health professional for therapy due to denial, shame and lack of knowledge. – Kelly Lee
Jun Kiat shared that as the awareness towards mental health and mental health services is still growing in the public sphere, many are still less receptive to the idea of seeking help for mental health services.
They will always be individuals or parents who are not open to the idea of mental health services. In Malaysia, the awareness toward mental health and mental health service is still growing. As such, some individuals still believe if one is to receive mental health service, it means that they are crazy. – Ng Jun Kiat
To the students who are receiving treatment from either clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, the student counsellors became the struggling student’s crutches on the school ground.
Especially during the pandemic, we encounter cases that require psychiatrist care or high level support in order to support the student holistically. For example, some students struggle with panic attacks, bipolar disorder, major depression disorder and so on. – Ng Jun Kiat
All hands on deck
Mental health illness is trickier to detect when it comes to children and adolescents, thus, the responsibility of identifying any behavioural changes in schools and homes would help in ensuring mental health illnesses among students are handled immediately.
Signs that teachers could look at would be in terms of the class attendance and classroom behaviour and participation. Oftentimes, teachers are observant and intuitive when it comes to behavioural changes.Regardless of age, children with mental health disorders will demonstrate very obvious symptoms which require psychiatric assistance (eg. Psychopathy, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). – Kelly Lee
When it comes to children at home, it is the abrupt emotional shift that sometimes may have been commonly associated with onset of puberty is the tell-tale sign.
Children below 12 tend to be less articulate in expressing their emotions. So they may be prone to anger outbursts, temper tantrums, crying spells or moodiness, and quietness if they’re experiencing difficulties. – Kelly Lee
There are also physical manifestations that should be noted down by parents and family members.
They (referring to children) would report difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, isolating themselves, losing interest in things that they used to do and frequent complaints of body pain. – Ng Jun Kiat
The adequacy of awareness campaigns
Within the schools that we have interviewed, awareness campaigns are run regularly to improve mental health literacy. Notably, at the community level, more needs to be done.
At the community level, there are not enough awareness campaigns focusing on children and adolescents, especially helping parents to learn how to support children and adolescents who are struggling. – Ng Jun Kiat
But awareness campaigns alone aren’t sufficient to tackle mental health issues in schools.
Awareness campaigns are for prevention. It’s to help regular people to maintain their mental health. Just like us, knowing the food groups help us to eat healthy and choose wisely. – Kelly Lee
A bigger hurdle is ensuring those who need help would be encouraged to seek it. That also involves stigma to no longer evade our community members and each one of us is allowed to say that we’re not okay and require professional help.
But to get people to seek help when they’re experiencing difficulties requires another level of psychoeducation to reduce the self-stigma and stigma surrounding mental health. It is to encourage people to seek help and let them know it is ok and reassure them that they’re not crazy or weak for seeking help. – Kelly Lee
And, when it comes to children and adolescents, it is key to ensure the parents or caregivers involvement. Especially as parents’ consent is required when children are seeking mental health assistance.
A lot of times the children don’t want to trouble their parents or appear to be problematic so they suffer in silence or refuse to seek help. A lot of times they have family members who are also suffering from a mental health issue and they are burdened by it and feel helpless as well. – Kelly Lee
Enhancing mental health literacy in schools
A pamphlet or fact sheet on mental health issues perhaps is a thing of the past. Mental health education should be moving with time and pique the interest of children and adolescents.
Incorporating mental health education into games like computer games. It’s all the rage now, children can learn more about how to improve their mental health by completing quests. There’s a developer who did that. The app is called Superbetter. – Kelly Lee
On the other hand, the inclusion of mental health and psychology elements in curriculum would also help in improving mental health literacy in schools.
In our school, we have Personal, Social, Health Education (PSHLE) or social emotional learning curriculum included in learning experience. – Ng Jun Kiat
Exposure is key in tackling the stigma surrounding mental health, meeting a mental health practitioner or counsellor should be as normal as visiting the clinic or dentist for a checkup.
Normalize seeing a counselor or mental health practitioner. It should be like seeing the dentist. Just to do a mental health check. Not seeking a counselor only when you are having a meltdown. – Kelly Lee
On a bigger scale, the government recognises the dire state of student’s mental health and has implemented programmes in schools.
The government implemented Saringan Minda Sihat and Program Minda Sihat which is an attempt to gauge and intervene the students’ mental health in schools. – Kelly Lee
Kelly anticipates that with the school reopening completely, students would also experience adjustment issues.
Students have not been in school for 2 years. They have been displaced, either heavily supervised or poorly supervised at home. We would witness a possible rise in mental health problems in students mainly due to lack of physical activities and social activities with peers, overexposure to online media and lack of boundaries with family members. – Kelly Lee
Currently, the ratio set by the Ministry of Education is 1:500. However, Kelly mentioned that perhaps, more counselors should be a part of the school infrastructure to lessen the burden of current counselors and ensure no child is silently suffering.
Ideally we should have more, then more can be done. I think 1:500 is reasonable. Assuming that 10% of the students require any form of psychological assistance at any one time. I think 1:250 would be nice too. Then the counselor would be more focused. – Kelly Lee
It is a worrying state that currently 424,000 Malaysian children and adolescents are reportedly suffering from mental health illness . The number is set to rise with schools opening their doors once more, to a child whose home isn’t a safe place – a counselling unit may be their refuge. The role of school counsellors may be simplified to many however they attend to the EQ (emotional quotient) of a student, and with their help, a child broken inside may become whole again having a good listener by their side.
What we can do to lessen their burden, as a parent or a family member – is to pay closer attention to our young ones or siblings for any tell tale signs. At the same time, educate ourselves and others to normalise that it is okay to not be okay.
Knowing that mental health issues are often lurking underneath, if you are a parent or a teacher who witnessed unexplained changes in your children or students, we have compiled a list of accessible mental health services and assistance.
Explore our sources:
1. K.Iman. (2021). The Sad Reason Why Malaysia Faces A Shortage Of Mental Health Counsellors… Again. CiliSos. Link
2. Ministry of Health Malaysia (2019). National Health and Morbidity Survey 2019. Link