The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns have left primary pupils feeling stressed, anxious and uncertain, with counsellors saying some feel as though their world has flipped upside down.
Tauranga counsellors report more children with anxiety since lockdown and they, along with principals, believe school guidance counsellors are urgently needed at a primary-school level to help pupils deal with disruptions to their school, social and home lives. Generally, students don't have access to school guidance counsellors until high school, which counsellors say may be too late for some.
Eleven Bay of Plenty schools have sought help through the Government's $50 million Urgent Response Fund, announced last month to address wellbeing needs of learners in early learning, schools and kura arising from Covid-19.
Three applications came from early learning providers and eight from schools. Two applications had been approved for funding, seven were pending review and two were declined. The Ministry of Education says funding for guidance staffing was provided to all schools with Year 9-13 students but was aware the demand for counselling in schools was growing, with plans to provide that service at primary schools next year.
However, not all schools will benefit.
Pillans Point School principal and Education Tauranga chairman Matt Simeon said there was a disparity of funding between primary and secondary schools and having school guidance counsellors funded at high school level was an "ambulance at the bottom of a cliff" approach.
The issues children were dealing with, though heightened by Covid-19, went beyond the global pandemic and having guidance counsellors would better allow teachers to focus on educating children.
"Any support along those lines is definitely going to be valued and accepted by the principals of primary schools," Simeon said.
The renewed calls have been prompted by a Bay of Plenty principal who, after completing 260 one-on-one interviews of students enrolling at his school this month, found primary school-aged children had faced high levels of stress, anxiety, upset and loss of appetite since the Covid-19 lockdown.
Patrick Walsh, principal of Rotorua's John Paul College and former president of the Secondary Principals Association of New Zealand, said 14 schools were represented during the interviews and students from every school would benefit from guidance counselling.
He has called for the Ministry of Education to prioritise children's mental health by giving every school access to school guidance counsellors.
"We are doing a disservice to children in primary schools by not having them and potentially exposing them to harm," Walsh said.
"Covid-19 is going to be with us for some time with all its adverse consequences for children."
The Ministry of Education's deputy secretary education system policy Andrea Schollman said the Government did not provide funding for guidance staffing to primary schools.
However, Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin last month announced a $75.8m boost for better access to counsellors to help primary and secondary students deal with mental health and wellbeing issues.
"The Ministry of Education is aware that the demand for counselling in schools is growing," she said.
The funding included $31.8m to increase large secondary schools' guidance staffing entitlement and $44m to contract community organisations to provide guidance counselling to primary and secondary students. The services would start next year for four years at schools most affected by the economic downturn from Covid-19.
"We will establish criteria to ensure support gets to the students who most need it. This funding will not provide for national coverage.
"We recognise that there is interest in increasing access to counselling in the primary sector."
Ōtūmoetai Intermediate School principal Henk Popping said the Covid-19 lockdown had "accelerated a couple of wellbeing issues" among students but generally they were doing well.
The school employed a learning support worker through board funds, and that person, although not a guidance counsellor, dealt with trauma and other incidences.
"With any counselling issues, we refer people back to their GPs."
He said the Government was supporting schools with students' wellbeing, but guidance counselling would benefit younger students, especially at intermediate. "Students going through puberty present challenges that maybe primary schools don't experience but ... primary schools are experiencing students coming to school with high anxiety so it's really a matter of tailoring the support for the type of schools the children are going in."
Tauranga counsellors said they were seeing more children dealing with anxiety since lockdown.
Evelyn Probert, of Mount Maunganui-based Fun in the Sun Counselling, said school guidance counsellors were needed at primary schools.
"Children are catching the anxiety off the parents as well. I guess they feel like their little world is a little upside down.
"Children aren't able to process it like an adult."
Probert said parents were also finding it difficult to pay for counselling due to financial hardship resulting from Covid-19.
Some children were also dealing with the impacts of sexual abuse, violence, separation of parents and exposure to things such as pornography at a younger age.
"They're dealing with anxiety and depression, and not getting help for childhood trauma at a young age can send them down a 'horrible road' of bad decisions and feelings of inadequacies."
The former school guidance counsellor said the New Zealand Association of Counsellors had been calling for counsellors in all schools for years. At secondary school, which is when guidance counsellors were funded in schools, helping students through their issues could be harder to tackle. By then, she says, habits can be set in.
Claire Roberts, Te Puke's Lighthouse Counselling, said she had noticed more anxiety among primary school-aged children since lockdown.
Helping children break habits early on was more successful than starting to work with children when they reached high school because by then it could be too late, she said
Where to get help ?
Free 24/7 National Anxiety Helpline (0800 ANXIETY; 0800 269 4389), Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7), Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7), Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7), Youthline: 0800 376 633, Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7), Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm), Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7). If it is an emergency and you feel you or someone else is at risk, call 111.