Changes to chaplains program a missed opportunity

Changes to the National School Chaplaincy Program are a missed opportunity to address the growing national mental health crisis among young people, according to the Australian Psychological Society (APS).

The Government last week announced that from next year the program would be modified to allow schools to opt for a secular welfare worker, rather than a chaplain, and to require those employed to have a youth work or pastoral care certificate. The initiative has also been renamed the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program.

But David Stokes, Senior Manager of Professional Practice at the Australian Psychological Society, said that the changes were inadequate to safeguard Australia’s students from inappropriate services and provide access to the professional support that would help them to effectively manage mental health issues. 

Mr Stokes said: “Mental health disorders now create the biggest burden for young people of all illnesses, a recent global study showed, and Australia's youth are particularly at risk, with high rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.  The $222 million extra that has been allocated to this program would be better invested in effective professional services that young Australians need and deserve.”

Mr Stokes said that the fundamental flaws in the program still remained, with chaplains, and soon youth welfare workers, being placed in situations where they are required to deal with a range of issues for which they had inadequate training.   According to the Commonwealth Ombudsman's recent report, chaplains are dealing with “substance abuse, physical and emotional abuse and neglect, anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide”, which require specialist mental health expertise.  The National School Chaplaincy Association’s own evaluation has highlighted that chaplains are dealing with significant mental health issues,

Mr Stokes said: “The signs of mental health issues can be subtle, and the factors that influence them are often complex, but a failure to intervene early with effective strategies and interventions can be catastrophic for the young person involved, and their loved ones. It is far more cost effective to invest at this early stage, than spend billions addressing the fallout later in someone’s life.”

He continued: “We need more psychologists in schools to provide the evidence-based therapy and intervention which research has shown are the best practice response to these serious mental health issues. The Government must redirect these funds to ensure the Australian community is getting the best outcomes from its expenditure, which means proven services that are able to have a measurable impact on these increasingly prevalent mental health issues.”


Mr Stokes, a psychologist, has prepared several submissions to the Government on the issue of chaplains in schools. To request a copy of the APS submissions on the chaplains program, or for other media enquiries contact Rebecca Matthews on 03 8662 3358 or Judith Heywood on 03 8662 3301.
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.