Mental health practitioners in secondary schools


Every Victorian Government secondary school campus will be funded to employ a suitably qualified mental health practitioner by the end of 2021.

Allocation of mental health practitioners is based on student enrolments, with each campus receiving 0.5 FTE on average. The initiative started in Term 3, 2019, and is currently rolled out to more than 300 secondary school campuses across the state.

Role of the mental health practitioner

Under the initiative, mental health practitioners include:

  • Nurses with a specialisation in mental health
  • Occupational Therapists
  • Psychologists
  • Social Workers.

Nurses, Occupational Therapists and Psychologists must hold full AHPRA registration. Social workers must be eligible for membership with the Australian Association of Social Workers.

Mental health practitioners are school-based roles who work flexibly, based on the needs and priorities of their school and students.

The mental health practitioner role provides an additional resource to the school's existing wellbeing team and includes:

  • contributing to whole-school approaches to mental health prevention and promotion
  • provision of direct counselling support to students and other early intervention services
  • coordination of supports for students with more complex needs

Mental health practitioners provide short term intervention for students with mild to moderate mental health needs and liaise with the relevant internal and external services where students need more intensive support. Informed consent is sought before commencing intervention services.

Schools can also access the Mental health toolkit, which has a suite of resources and guidance to help support the mental health and wellbeing needs of their students. 

Recruitment of mental health practitioners

Schools receive advice on the role and qualifications required by mental health practitioners. Dedicated Mental Health Coordinators in each Area also support schools in the recruitment processes.

Advice includes:

  • guidance about the role of the mental health practitioner and the expertise that each mental health practitioner discipline area can bring to school communities
  • working flexibility where schools already employ health and wellbeing staff with different areas of expertise
  • supporting schools that are finding it hard to recruit practitioners. For example, schools located in rural and regional areas and schools with low enrolment numbers.

Case studies

See mental health practitioners in action. 

Eaglehawk Secondary College (background discipline: occupational therapist)


Occupational therapist delivers extra mental health support to college students

Teenagers at Eaglehawk Secondary College are feeling more supported and positive thanks to a new addition to the wellbeing team

Since occupational therapist Adam Johnson's arrival as mental health practitioner at Eaglehawk Secondary College, he has proven himself to be a valuable addition to the school's Wellbeing team. 

Krys, a Year 9 student, said he's receiving support in an area of his life where he's never had it before.

'I'm positive going into the classroom, I'm positive talking to the teachers, the other students. I always think to myself how lucky I am to have that support in my life,' Krys said. 

Some students at the college struggle with mental health issues, and while there is access to a psychologist and a social worker through the Department of Education and Training's Student Support Services, Adam's experience as an occupational therapist compliments the team.  

Making a difference

Adam provides an added layer of support when issues arise, posing the right questions to get the team thinking about things they hadn't considered before. He helps triage students, provides case management support to external services and direct counselling to students with mild to moderate mental health needs.   

The college's principal, Danielle Derksen, said the school was now able to provide regular one-to-one counselling to students which was not possible before, and this increase in support had resulted in better attendance rates. Students' interactions and social connections had also improved, Danielle said. Students now feel more supported and positive and are armed with the right tools to manage their school and personal life.  

Equipped for mental wellbeing

Adam said his toolbox included upskilling teachers on how sensory modulation helped teenagers self-regulate and get in the right mind frame for learning. He also focuses on helpful daily habits and routines.  

Lindsay, a Year 9 student, said the advice helped students cope and 'feel a lot calmer and relaxed.'  

For Adam, having an impact at a key point in a student's life and providing early intervention attracted him to the role, as well as working in a team where everyone is as passionate as he is about 'why they are here every day'.  

And the impact of the help is evident when the students speak about the mental health support at Eaglehawk Secondary College.  

'What wasn't possible… was letting my emotions out. I was never confident in myself, I always put myself down. But now I've got my confidence, I'm happy,' Krys said. 

Newcomb Secondary College (background discipline: social worker) 

 

Making a difference to student wellbeing

Lunchtime yoga and one-on-one counseling are creating a peaceful vibe at Newcomb Secondary College

Amanda Davis has made an incredible impact at Newcomb Secondary College as the mental health practitioner since she joined the Wellbeing team.

With complex and challenging wellbeing issues in the community, Assistant Principal, James Murphy describes Amanda's contribution as 'multi-tiered and multi-faceted'

Amanda works two days per week at Newcomb and three as a Student Support Services Social Worker for the Department. This enables her to draw on her experience and learnings from other schools, which has proven to be extremely beneficial at Newcomb.  

Implementing a whole-school approach

While the role requires Amanda to work in a variety of areas, Linda Gawith, the Department's Mental Health Coordinator in the Barwon area, says there is a focus on the whole-school approach working across health promotion, prevention and early intervention. 

The school environment is one where Amanda feels she can really make a difference, addressing barriers students may experience that affect their education. 

'I think when people are open to support and seek help it's something that I really value — being able to build relationships with students to support their wellbeing,' Linda said. 

Student Wellbeing Coordinator Chiara Ercoli says the school can now offer things they previously didn't have access to, or time to achieve, before Amanda's employment, like the Peaceful Kids Program and their lunchtime yoga, as well as one-to-one counselling. 

As some students have complex mental health needs, Amanda is able to refer them to a range of external services to fulfill their individual needs. 

Improving cultural connection for Indigenous students

Assistant Principal James Murphy has also seen positive effects from Amanda's contribution to the Wellbeing team, particularly within the Indigenous community. 

'Through Amanda's contribution our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students have really felt a heightened sense of connection to their cultural heritage and Amanda's work in that space has enabled them to build a really strong and vibrant sub-community within our school,' James said. 

Amanda's expertise means she can also support teachers, providing them with capability-building opportunities to assist student learning and wellbeing. 

And she feels privileged to work in a team of staff who share her passion for student wellbeing support and its result — seeing students 'work towards their goals and reach their potential.' 

That is what inspires her to continue.

Parkdale Secondary College (background discipline: psychologist)

 

Students taking control of mental wellbeing

Emotional regulation learning helps reduce mental health struggles at school

With a large student population presenting with a variety of mental health needs, Parkdale Secondary College has benefited immensely from the addition of psychologist, Priya Dhairyawan, as the mental health practitioner in the Health and Wellbeing team.

In prior roles, Priya often found herself with clients presenting at ‘crisis point’. However, being in a school environment means she can regularly work and interact with the Parkdale students one-on-one or in small groups, giving her the opportunity to focus on ‘preventative work’.

June Sainsbury, Assistant Principal, said Priya has been able to help staff explicitly teach students about emotional regulation, enabling them to have some control over their own mental health.

‘That in turn lets them manage their mental health, and at the end of the day, helps to reduce the number of mental health presentations we’re having at the school,’ June said.

Mental wellness a collective responsibility

Priya’s clinical background and knowledge of external services has also had a huge impact on the staff and the Wellbeing team, with a flow on effect to students and their families.

Jake Phin, Student Wellbeing Coordinator, said having someone like Priya on board enables further support and training for staff.

‘At the end of the day it’s that collective responsibility at the college to support students and their wellbeing needs,’ Jake said.

Priya said she gains a lot from the teachers who have unique insights due to being the first point of contact for students.

‘What a great opportunity and potential there is to actually intervene at schools.’ Priya said.

Students talk out negative feelings

Year 9 student Kai said having someone to talk to reduces a lot of negative feelings.

‘Just having that person there to talk about it all, it definitely helps you identify what you’re thinking or going through,’ Kai said.

And as well as guiding him through whatever issues he’s facing, Kai said Priya also provides education on external resources such as meditation app Headspace.

Having Priya as part of the Wellbeing team also means the college can implement programs they didn’t have the resources for previously.

Priya gives the school the ability to promote good mental health across whole year levels, while being instrumental in supporting the rollout of initiatives such as Respectful Relationships.

Priya has made a positive impact to the mental health support at Parkdale Secondary College.

Whittlesea Secondary College (background discipline: nurse with specialisation in mental health)

 

 Establishing a safe space for students

Breaking the stigma of mental health struggles creates a harmonious school community

There are many benefits to having Tania Pyle as the mental health practitioner at Whittlesea Secondary College. The most notable is an extra level of wellbeing support in the school that has helped break the stigma surrounding mental health issues.  

School Captain Harmony said the support has helped students feel like they are not alone.  

'I think we've definitely become more of a community,' Harmony said.  

The students at Whittlesea present with a variety of mental health needs. However, having access to one-to-one support, group work and mental health promotion across the whole school has helped build a stronger community.  

Ben Omizzolo, Assistant Principal, said Tania's professional background as a nurse meant she brought extra skills to the wellbeing team. 

'Having that professional background means she has been able to positively influence our students, as well as supporting our team when dealing with these students,' Ben said.

Bringing specialised experience to the school

Tania's experience as a nurse with a specialisation in mental health means she's able to help with early identification and intervention.

Because she still works one day per week in the acute mental health sector, she brings that knowledge and experience to the school setting. This knowledge is particularly helpful for teachers, building their capability to help them identify mental health issues within their students.

Tania is also invested in a collaborative approach to raising awareness of mental health with students and their families.

The whole school approach now means students and their families know exactly where to go, no matter how individualised their needs are.

When complex cases arise, Tania serves as an additional layer of support to staff so they're confident they're utilising resources and coordinating referrals for students in the best way possible.

Young people have got amazing stories to tell, and I think it's really important for them to be able to be heard and have that voice,' Tania said.

And she has certainly provided a safe space for the students of Whittlesea Secondary College, including Vice-Captain Will, for whom 'having someone just to talk to and rely on' has had a positive effect.   

Mental health supports in specialist schools

On 7 August 2020, the Victorian Government announced the Mental health supports in specialist schools initiative to expand mental health and wellbeing support in specialist schools.

In Term 1, 2021 every Victorian government specialist school with secondary enrolments received funding to employ a suitably qualified mental health professional within their school.

This two-year, fixed term funding funds an additional 82 Victorian schools across the state to employ a mental health practitioner. 

Integration with existing health and wellbeing support

Mental health practitioners complement schools' existing health and wellbeing teams.

They work to the needs and priorities of the school, including direct student support and other early intervention services, coordinating support for students with complex needs, and contributing to whole-school approaches to mental health promotion and prevention. 

Working with student support services

The positions are based in schools, supplementing the support provided to schools by Student Support Services (SSS) staff. The SSS workforce will continue to support schools according to their service priorities.

As a member of the school's broader health and wellbeing team, mental health practitioners liaise with SSS staff to address student mental health needs at a whole school level and for individual students, in line with the Health Wellbeing and Inclusion Workforce Practice Model. 

Working with headspace

Dedicated counselling services for secondary school students have been established within headspace centres. This support continues to be available to support secondary school students presenting with mental health needs such as anxiety or depression, to improve their mental health and assist in finding them the right support.

Mental health practitioners facilitate referrals to headspace services and other community based supports as appropriate, and help school-level planning to support student mental health needs.

Additional information about the mental health in schools initiative
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Mental Health Toolkit

The Department has developed an online toolkit to provide schools and school-based health and wellbeing teams with guidance on evidence-based best practice and interventions to support students' mental health.

The Mental Health Toolkit covers:

More information

Schools will be provided with further information about the Mental Health Practitioners initiative as implementation progresses. If you have any queries, please contact the team at mental.health.practitioners@education.vic.gov.au