The truth about school counselling: what you need to know

by | Aug 12, 2021

In today’s ever changing and volatile world, everyone requires a little support from time to time. While we are in school, our school counsellors are one of the most accessible forms of support and counselling.

With the recent River Valley High School incident, it is all the more important for students to know where they can reach out for emotional support during trying times.

However, students are often hesitant or reluctant to reach out to their school counsellors for help. Therefore, this article attempts to shed some light on the truth about school counsellors and the common misconceptions and questions asked about them.

To obtain more accurate and deeper insights on how the school counselling system operates, we interviewed an ex-school counsellor, who wishes to remain anonymous, that we will refer to as “Sarah” in this article.

Counseling table with people

One of the main reasons why students are afraid to approach their school counsellor is due to the misconceptions they may possess about them or about approaching them for help.

Competency issues

Counselling is an extremely difficult and tricky job and requires a trained individual who is able to help students work through their issues without causing any further harm.

The misconception that school counsellors are not as competent may be due to several students sharing their experiences.

They shared that their school counsellor was either not helpful or made their mental health deteriorate further.

The students shared on reddit that a school counsellor they encountered “would belittle people’s problems and compare them to others who were ‘worse off’”.

Another student remarked that a school counsellor they met with “merely talked about her own experience and implied that whatever was happening to me was my own fault”.

Those students did not reach out or open up again to avoid feeling dismissed or worse about their situations.

Upon speaking to Sarah, she clarified that all school counsellors are required to have undergone relevant professional training that is recognised by the Singapore Association of Counselling.

This ensures that all school counsellors possess at least a standard level of training to allow them to help students.

Confidentiality issues

During counselling sessions, a significant amount of sensitive or confidential information may be shared between counsellor and student.

Students are often afraid of the possibility that their private information is exposed to others that they are not comfortable sharing that information with.

Moreover, some students have shared their experiences where their private information was divulged without their consent. Hence, many students are afraid that this would happen to them and thus may decide against reaching out to their school counsellor.

On reddit, a student stated that they have “had friends who went to the school counsellor only to have the information they revealed in confidence exposed, leading to them losing opportunities”.

These instances tend to dissuade students from reaching out, in fear that their private information will be exposed.

That being said, Sarah informed us that all interactions with counsellors are in fact confidential.

The only exceptions are when the counsellor believes that the students may hurt themselves or others around them, the student is breaking the law or is experiencing abuse etcetera.

Sarah noted that this is all according to the professional counselling ethical guidelines. This means that school counsellors do in fact follow a confidentiality agreement and private information you have shared with them, as long as it is not something illegal or possibly harmful to yourself or others, will not be shared.

Mental health stigma

Another reason why students may be hesitant to approach school counsellors is the stigma that surrounds mental health. They may be afraid that their peers will exclude or mock them for asking for help.

Sarah also commented that she believes that this is one of the primary obstacles students face when wanting to reach out for help.

“Other possible obstacles could be the student’s family’s beliefs and attitudes towards mental health and lack of recognition of their mental health issues” she noted. This could lead to shame, fear and embarrassment, which may dissuade students from reaching out for help.

However, statistics have shown that more youths have been reaching out regarding mental health issues.

According to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), their Community Health Assessment Team (Chat) was used by 190 percent more youths in 2017 compared to 2015.

This trend can also be seen in the school setting.

Dr Ong Say How, chief and senior consultant at the institute’s department of developmental psychiatry noted that “Many cases are managed in the community, especially in the school setting – for example, school counsellors, counsellors from social service agencies or the reach team”

More youths have been reaching out for assistance regarding their mental health implies a reduced stigma towards doing so. Conversations regarding mental health have also become more prevalent in today’s society.

Thus, reaching out to your school counsellor for help is nothing to be ashamed of. Surround yourself with people who will support you seeking to improve your mental health.

What happens when you approach your school counsellor?

reaching out for help

Photo by Rémi Walle on Unsplash

Many students are unsure of the process of reaching out to their school counsellor.

Usually, the school counsellor conducts talks for students every once in a while and their number is shown for any students to contact them.

Alternatively, students can approach their form teachers or any trusted teacher to reach out to the school counsellor for them.

Sarah also mentioned that students will usually need to complete a registration form, providing personal details and such.

After doing so, the school counsellor would contact the student to arrange a counselling session with them according to their time table.

If you are uncomfortable or nervous about being alone, counsellors usually allow a trusted friend to join you as long as you are comfortable.

During sessions, they will ask you questions to get to know more about yourself and the situation you are in. Most of the time, they will inquire about your general state of wellbeing at the time.

Do note that their role is not to offer advice or solve problems.

The counsellor is there for the individual to explore his/her/their concerns, examine options and help the student find the answer that best works for them.

How does approaching your school counsellor help?

Although there are students who share their unsatisfactory experiences with school counsellors, there are also many students who have had great experiences with them.

For some students, their school counsellor was pivotal in their school life and helped them through many rough periods they had.

A student on reddit commented that their school counsellor “has been a life saver for me” and that “If i could turn back time, I wished I had seen my sch counsellor in jc1”.

School counsellors can also be your listening ear and allow you to vent or help you organise your thoughts such that you make better decisions.

Talking to your school counsellor may provide you with new insights or perspectives to your situations.

Moreover, although school counsellors cannot diagnose students, they can refer those who require more assistance to more holistic sources of support such as community health agencies.

Counselling is tough

Counseling is tough

Truth be told, counselling is an extremely difficult profession.

In most schools, there’s a ratio of one or two counsellors to serve a cohort of 800-1000 students.

Counselors have to go above and beyond to cater to the needs of an overwhelming population. This weak support network can be mentally and physically taxing on the community of counselors.

“My school has two counsellors, and it’s not enough. They don’t just handle diagnosed mental health issues but all the other anxieties and misbehaviours daily, from all sorts of students who may just be having a bad day,” said Cindy, a secondary school teacher.

Other times, students may have an unpleasant experience with the counselor due to their differences in personality.

Mr Koh, who was a counsellor at an Integrated Programme school for 10 years said that “Counselling is a very intimate kind of relationship. Sometimes it’s just personality differences, (but) if they don’t like it, it becomes a bad experience for them. That’s the disadvantage of having only one school counsellor in the school,”

Thus, school counselling seems to be a hit-or-miss situation, where your experience with them depends on who you meet.

One solution to this problem is for schools to recruit more counsellors so that students can  find one that matches their needs.

Fortunately, the Ministry Of Education aims to increase the number of teacher-counsellors from 700 now to 1,000 and recruit more school counsellors in the next few years.

Final thoughts

At the end of the day, it is all about your comfort level. If you are not comfortable with reaching out to your school counsellor, that is perfectly alright.

Ensure that you have a good support system that you can rely on.

Alternatively, if you are still hesitant to reach out to your school counsellor or feel uncomfortable in doing so but wish to seek help, refer to the infographic below!

Counseling resources

Apart from those organisations, there is also an abundance of online resources to help improve your mental health such as self care Instagram accounts and more.

Hopefully this article was able to clear up any misconceptions or questions you had about school counsellors.

Remember to take care of your mental health and reach out for help if you need it!

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