Supporting students with mental health issues

The Australian and New Zealand Education Law Association (ANZELA) NSW Twilight Seminar was held in Lismore on Monday 3 August.

Michael Waterhouse, Director of Legal Services at the NSW Department of Education facilitated a panel of educational, legal, mental health and student support experts, in addressing the complex issues arising from the education of students with mental health issues.

The ANZELA seminar panel consisted of Kylie Nomchong (Senior Counsel of the NSW Bar), Dr Lyn Gardon (Director, Every Student Every School DEC), Deanne Bowen (Youth and Family Mental Health Clinician) and Br John Hilet (Principal Trinity Catholic College Lismore).

In their introductory comments, all panelists agreed that they have observed an increased incidence of mental health issues amongst students over recent times, with more complex and severe behaviours being evidenced.

Panelists also concurred with the fine balancing act that takes place in schools as school managers look to support the student with the condition in the best way possible to ensure their well being and access to education, while caring for the safety and educational opportunity of other students, and the duty of care and WHS obligations for staff.

A ‘hypothetical’ was put to the panelists, which provided some key points:

Teachers and support staff must be adequately prepared, trained and supported to address student mental health issues in the school setting.

Schools must interact and work in committee with cross agencies to develop an Individualised Education Program (IEP) with the best chances of success.

Often, it is the overt, attention-demanding students with mental health issues that are identified and assisted, while the introvert, quiet students go under the radar and fail to get the help they need. Teachers should be alert to the isolated or withdrawn student and refer concerns to the school counsellor for checking.

Background information is vital to provide circumstance and context for the concerning behaviours. Those managing the student should find out what has been tried previously, and what has worked – as well as what has not worked.

There is legislative support for schools to gain background information in Part 5A of the NSW Education Act. Part 5A provides explicit advice for managing Health and Safety Risks at Schools Arising from Student Behaviours. The NSW Minister for Education Verity Firth, released mandatory guidelines for violent behaviours in 2010, which remain current today. (

Teachers and support staff directly engaging with the student must be informed of relevant information about the student, especially if there are any risks to the safety of other students and staff.

A risk management and team approach will provide a sound basis for the development of an IEP that could work for all.

A student of any age can self refer to a counsellor, and one who is over 14 does not need parental consent to see a counsellor or psychologist.

Any student who enters a school during the year (ie after the ‘normal’ commencement time in Term 1) should be transitioned into the school, to assist with social adjustment (ie break into established social groups) as well as be assessed for educational attainments and gaps. A transition observation should go on for more than a few days.

Because of the increased incidence of litigation, schools are advised to keep careful and complete documentary records of everything concerning the student and their management, including the family and relevant interactions with them, a WHS file, school incidents files, and so on.

Schools are advised to have a ‘critical incident plan’ ready to go, with strategies ready to deal flexibly with any particular critical incident.

In the case of a critical incident where a worker or student is injured and on leave, schools are advised to designate a dedicated liaison person who will keep the injured individual/family supported and informed. This is important for recovery from the psychological trauma of a critical incident.

These tips are not exhaustive, but will hopefully spark a conversation to help schools to prepare for the complex situations that can occur while supporting students with mental health issues.

A final word came from the legal panelist, who offered her opinion that in this space; it is impossible for schools to satisfy both the Disability Discrimination Act and Work Health and Safety obligations, all the more reason to keep those documentary files in neat order.

Sandra White