18 Dec 2010

Vote-seeking Australian government opts to spend $437 million on school chaplains instead of qualified counsellors

The Sydney Morning Herald - Australia August 16, 2010

Why are we robbing our littlies to preach Paul?

by Leslie Cannold | Opinion

About one in five young Australians suffer from mental illnesses. These include anxiety, depressive disorders, anorexia and bulimia. Some 10 per cent of young Australians suffer abuse or neglect while one in five have a parent with poor mental health or a physical disability.

Young people with mental health issues are at increased risk of dropping out of school, becoming homeless or ending up in the justice system. They are five times more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol (and wind up having unsafe sex, drink-driving or brawling) and more likely to harm or kill themselves.

Children's mental health services are poorly funded. But, unlike adult mental health services, this is not because we lack the money but because we have chosen to spend it on something else.

That something else is school chaplaincy. Last week the Gillard government pre-empted its own review and increased the program's funding by more than a third. The cost to the taxpayer now stands at $437 million.

You might think a government with $437 million would have an eye to the suffering caused when youth mental health problems go untreated. You might think that government would be duty-bound to provide evidence-based solutions by addressing the woeful shortage of qualified counsellors in schools (in NSW the figure of one to every 1050 students is less than half the recommended ratio). After all, and quite literally, the lives of children are at stake.

You might think so, but you'd be wrong. Instead, the Gillard government has deployed chaplains. School chaplains come from organisations such as Scripture Union, which sees them as a means by which they can fulfil their organisational aim of making "God's Good News known to children [and] young people" so "they may come to personal faith in our Lord Jesus Christ ... and become both committed church members".

The government knows chaplains are evangelical Christians, not mental health experts. This is why departmental guidelines prohibit chaplains from counselling students. They also ban chaplains from providing educational and medical services, as well as from proselytising. So what exactly are we paying chaplains $20,000 each to do?

I'm not the only one wondering.

As a report on the program reveals, many chaplains are unclear about their role. A majority admit they do deal with student mental health and depression issues, alcohol and drug use, physical/emotional abuse and neglect, and suicide and self-harming behaviours. What most don't do is refer to appropriate professionals when out of their depth.

This is not an argument against religion in schools, though one can clearly be made. Rather it is an argument about the wrong choices made for bad reasons that are putting our most vulnerable schoolchildren at risk. Money spent on chaplains could have brought about 5000 qualified counsellors into schools.

Chaplains are also accidents waiting to happen, which may be why the government can't get far enough away from them when liability issues are mentioned. In various communications, it stresses that chaplains are not employees of the Education Department and suggests that the buck stops with principals, chaplaincy service providers or parents' and citizens' groups.

So what did our children to deserve our negligence? Nothing. It's just that Labor needs to pick up an additional 1 per cent of the religious vote in Queensland. Sorry kids.

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