Canberra will not have enough school psychologists to meet the demand of students with mental health issues by the time it has finished hiring in 2020.
Last year, the ACT Government committed to employ an additional 20 school psychologists over three years — one of the recommendations made in the Shaddock review, the report launched after the discovery that a boy with autism had been kept in a cage at a Canberra primary school.
That review determined there were not enough psychologists to help the growing number of students with challenging behaviours or mental health issues.
It recommended the number of psychologists needed to be “substantially” increased, so that there was at least one school psychologist for every 500 students in Canberra.
But figures released through that estimates process show by the time the additional 20 psychologists are employed, the projected ratio will have swelled back to one psychologist per 622 students as schools will have grown in the three years since the measure was committed to.
Lack of professionals could make mental health issues worse
The head of the Psychologists Association in the ACT and school psychologist, Rosie Jovanovic, said students were already falling through the gaps.
“There’s a far greater increase in acute presentations,” she said.
“There’s severe enough anxiety that it’s debilitating, there’s severe enough depression that students are presenting with suicidal ideation.
“It does put young people at greater risk, because we’re encouraging help-seeking, but then we don’t have the available resources to respond to that.
“That actually can make it worse … they may feel a greater sense of hopelessness around getting the help they need.”
Ms Jovanovic said school psychologists were frustrated and often burnt-out by their case loads. (ABC News: Jake Evans)
Once the 20 additional psychologists are employed, it will be an improvement upon the 1:750 ratio the ACT had in 2015.
The Government also argued that alongside allied health professionals such as speech pathologists, the projected ratio would be under the 1:500 mark.
But Ms Jovanovic said while allied professionals did help, schools needed professionals with psychological qualifications who could respond to the complex issues students have.
“It is important that we do have trained professionals to do this,” she said.
“All sorts of people have all sorts of opinions about how we respond to mental health, but what we need, really strongly, is an evidence-based approach.”
Response ‘too slow’ as students fall through the gaps
Opposition education spokeswoman Elizabeth Lee said the rollout of additional psychologists had been too slow.
“It’s not the silver bullet. But it is a key recommendation that was made in the report,” she said.
“For them to actually be so slow in implementing the recommendation shows they’re not actually taking it seriously, and it’s clearly not a priority.”
Ms Jovanovic said school psychologists were frustrated and often burnt-out by the case loads they were managing.
“Most school psychs, most schools would be aware of students who are at significant risk of harm or at risk of killing themselves,” she said.
“Students do fall through the gaps.”
Education Minister Yvette Berry has been contacted for comment.