Budget funding for chaplains program misspent

Federal Government funding allocated for school chaplains should be urgently redirected to programs to deliver professional mental health and well-being services in schools, according to the Australian Psychological Society (APS).

Mr David Stokes, psychologist and author of several APS submissions to the Government about the chaplain’s program, said: “We have serious concerns about the school chaplains program where untrained, unregistered and unsupervised people are working in schools with young people with serious emotional and mental health issues.

“Often the signs of distress or depression are quite subtle and an untrained person could easily overlook them but the consequences of an inappropriate response, or a failure to act early, could be life-altering for that young person,” he said.  

The Government has called for a number of inquiries into the school chaplains program but re-funded the program in the recent Budget before the recommendations from those inquiries had been made and despite warnings from a range of experts in the field, including the APS, and widespread community concern about the program.

Mr Stokes said it was baffling that funds were being diverted from well-established evidence-based services to poorly trained and often inexperienced personnel in unevaluated programs, given the current focus on mental health and the well understood and documented level of demand for psychological services for young people.

Research shows that a concerning number of students are experiencing poor psychological health due to a range of factors. It has been reported that three quarters of individuals with a mental illness experienced their first symptoms before the age of 25.  Mental illness, family stress and breakdown, being a witness to domestic violence, or living with the trauma of sexual or psychological abuse are just some of the serious reasons why students may require expert psychological intervention.

Mr Stokes said: “Chaplains were put into schools to provide pastoral care, not mental health services; however chaplains themselves report that they are faced with complex emotional and psychological issues for which they do not have the training.  This leaves children and adolescents at risk.”

He said that the chaplain’s own report to Government —The Effectiveness of Chaplaincy as Provided by the NSCA to Government Schools in Australia, Hughes & Sims, 2009 — highlighted that chaplains were acting outside their training and undertaking activities that could potentially place students at risk, including involving themselves in mental health issues such as ‘suicide watch’. That report also revealed that chaplains placed a low priority on referring young people who were identified as being at risk onto specialist professionals.

Mr Stokes said that because of their emotional and psychological impacts, bullying, family breakdown and other personal crises often required more than a “shoulder to cry on” and were all best dealt with by trained psychologists and social workers.

“Mental health professionals are trained to set aside their own personal beliefs, listen and provide non-judgmental, value-neutral support and assistance which is especially vital when dealing with young people, their issues, activities, sexuality and search for identity,” he said

He added: “All parents, regardless of their religious beliefs, want and deserve the best evidence-based health care for their children, and the funding for this should be a priority. When it comes to the mental health of our children, no less than the highest standard of care is acceptable.”

-ends-


For media enquiries please contact: Karen Coghlan or Judith Heywood on 0435 896 444 or media@psychology.org.au . For more information on psychology or the Australian Psychological Society visit www.psychology.org.au .

                                                                                                                       
The APS is the largest professional association for psychologists in Australia, representing more than 20,000 members. The APS is committed to advancing psychology as a discipline and profession. It spreads the message that psychologists make a difference to peoples’ lives, through improving psychological knowledge and community wellbeing.