SpeechMental Health Amendment (Counsellors) Bill 2021

October 6, 2021

Ms MAXWELL (Northern Victoria) (16:31): I rise to speak on the Mental Health Amendment (Counsellors) Bill 2021, and just at the outset I would like to talk about counsellors – counsellors that I have actually worked alongside in schools – and I would like to give them a shout-out for the fantastic job that they do.

I know from working in that field and having studied mental health myself that often children do not care about what qualifications you have got. They just need somebody who they can talk to and someone who has the expertise, the knowledge and the skills to be able to refer on when necessary. Trust in a counsellor, trust in anybody that you are talking with, particularly as a child, is so significant and so important.

Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party welcomes the government’s commitment to funding mental health practitioners in all government secondary schools and specialist schools. We desperately hope this expands to primary schools, understanding that providing the earliest support for intervention possible is critical to achieving better outcomes for children. The Northern and Western regions that Stuart Grimley and I represent face significant challenges in meeting the demand for mental health services in our communities. It is something we regularly speak about in this Parliament, and we hope that in implementing the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System the government will provide full support for regional areas so that our community have the services they need.

Speaking of regional and rural areas, we know that there are excruciating lengthy waits. I often have emails from parents asking me—pleading with me—what can be done so that their child can see a professional because in some instances it can be six to eight weeks. Children, particularly, with mental health problems often cannot wait that length of time. So I implore the government to continue on their road map in supporting the mental health needs of our children.

We also support the role that counsellors play in helping people address many of the struggles they face, and we support the role they already play in our schools as young people navigate what can be a very difficult transition to adulthood. This is done through programs such as student support services, primary welfare officers and others, as Ms Watts talked about in her contribution. We do note that schools have the opportunity to employ a range of mental health workers under different funding streams, and this we hope would continue.

The bill seeks to expand the definition of ‘mental health practitioner’ to include counsellors. On the surface, this seems like a pathway to broaden the pool of people that can be appointed as mental health practitioners under the government’s mental health practitioners in schools program.

The government tells us that this bill will not deliver a single additional counsellor for any Victorian school because the Mental Health Act 2014 simply does not cover it, and yet it is that exact definition that the Department of Education and Training uses for the program. I query that: if the definition is so insignificant for schools, then why does the department use it? At the end of the day, schools should have the choice to decide the best fit for their students’ needs. In some cases, this could be a social worker or a psychologist or even a psychiatrist, and in other cases, it could be a counsellor. Our hope is that if the bill is changed, the department will adjust the requirements for the program accordingly, and they could require a base level of qualification to ensure counsellors have appropriate training for these roles. Now, I am certainly not saying that counsellors do not have appropriate training; what I am indicating is that if they were to come under the Mental Health Act, there may need to be a review of their current training schedules.

Of most concern to Mr Grimley and me is the fact that regional, rural and remote schools are the most at risk of missing out in this program if the department does not choose to allow counsellors to take part. The government have assured us that there is currently no shortage of mental health workers in schools. I would say in rural and regional schools that is definitely not the case, and we know that whether it be wellbeing workers, counsellors, student support services officers or social workers who are working in schools, they are and have been for a significant amount of time absolutely run off their feet. My concern now with COVID and with children resuming school is that we are actually going to see a significantly higher number of children who are needing support.

If the government expands this program to all primary schools in the future after their successful pilot, as our party hopes it certainly will, then it is likely that there could be shortages, especially as I said, in regional areas. But the Australian Counselling Association tells us that around 30 per cent of the state’s counsellors live in regional areas, so it could be that this workforce is very important to helping to deliver help to young people in the thousands of schools across our electorates. We note the Premier did commit to assessing at the end of the year if the program needs to be expanded, and we will be consulting with our communities and keeping the government accountable to this commitment.

Counsellors should not be treated as outcasts in the mental health debate—most complete three years of university and 750 contact hours. This is more work in mental health than that of some of those already defined under the act as a mental health practitioner, and I would ask the government to please recognise this.

Whilst we are aware that this bill will not deliver what the opposition is hoping for overnight, we hope the government will take this as notice that mental health in primary schools and all schools matters, and we need the workforce to support its expansion. Some children return to school this week, and many more will return in the weeks to come. As I said, many children will be feeling apprehensive and unsure of how they will interact with friends they might not have seen for months. Some may not even want to go back to school and may suffer separation anxiety, along with many other emotions. Some children will bounce back; others will have ongoing struggles from the uncertainty that COVID has brought to their lives; some will develop complex mental health needs. So now more than ever we need all hands on deck to build resilience.

No matter their qualifications we need to ensure that there is a professional there for those children when they need that support. We need to strengthen the capacity of children and young people to cope with the uncertainty of the last 18 months, all that has come with it and what might be ahead. We have to ensure that we provide early intervention. We do not want to be treating kids once they become acute with a mental illness. We think counsellors can play an important part in this process, and so we commend this bill to the house.