Mental health practitioners in secondary schools

Victorian government secondary schools are currently recruiting mental health practitioners.

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.

About the positions

Mental health practitioner positions offer:

  • meaningful work including counselling, mental health promotion activities, and coordinating supports for students with complex needs
  • job security and flexibility, with part-time options available
  • work/life balance, with paid school holidays
  • access to a range of professional development supports
  • the opportunity to share your expertise as part of a multi-disciplinary team to help students develop resilience to prepare them for future challenges.

How to search and apply for mental health practitioner roles

Roles are regularly advertised on Recruitment Online as well as careers.vic.gov.au.

Case studies

Mental health practitioners in Victorian schools make a positive impact to the lives of young people

Hear about how mental health practitioners are making a difference to the mental health and wellbeing of school communities.


Transcript

Danielle Derkson - Principle, Eaglehawk Secondary College

The difference the mental health practitioners made in our school is having another member of the team, and the more diverse we can have our team, the better equipped we are at meeting the needs, whether it's triaging young people and consulting with staff on what the best supports are available, is just having another resource that can be utilised to meet the needs of our young people. 

Pray Dhairyawan - Mental Health Practitioner, Parkdale Secondary College

The Mental Health Practitioner role is quite unique because it's a combination where you're providing mental health interventions at different tier levels. So it could be tier one, which is whole-school approaches, and tier two where you're working, sort of, with a small group of teachers that are supporting a particular student, and then you also have complex case management.

Chiara Ercoli - Student Wellbeing Coordinator, Newcomb Secondary College

The absolute benefit of having a mental health practitioner in our school is to have someone with that expertise be able to sit within the college so that students that are referred are able to see that practitioner at school rather than having to leave the college, take time out of their teaching and their learning.

Like, actually having someone there who can talk to you just about mental health, means that we, kind of, take more notice at it, and we actually look at our mental health and actually make sure that we are okay.

Colette Davis - Mental Health Coordinator, Parkdale Secondary College

So to be a mental health practitioner, you need to be a fully-qualified psychologist,a fully-qualified social worker, mental health nurse, or an OT, which is an occupational therapist. You also need to have significant amount of experience in mental health. So, yes, it's the qualification, but it's also the experience in mental health and working with young people. Mental Health Practitioner role is employed directly by the school as an education support staff member, but we're part of a bigger organisation, so we're part of Department of Education.

Amanda Davis - Mental Health Practitioner, Newcomb Secondary College

There are so many things that I enjoy about working in the school. I suppose, the opportunity to work with young people, to support their wellbeing is an absolute privilege, it's not something that I take lightly.

Ben Omizzolo - Assistant Principal, Whittlesea Secondary College

There's been two main areas that our mental health practitioner has really promoted here at the school, and that's overall health promotion here at the college, especially with mental health, and also breaking the stigma of being able to access wellbeing and wellbeing support, particularly in the mental health area here at the college.

Personally, it's helped me a lot 'cause usually I'm not really open about my feelings.

I usually just carry them on my shoulders and I don't open up to anyone. They've helped me a lot more than I could ever imagine. And it's just the benefits in my learning and outside of school and everything.

Kate Taylor - Mental Health Coordinator, Loddon Campaspe Area

So there's a lot of professional support that is provided to the mental health practitioners, they're linked within the area team with the other mental health practitioners, they also have access to the Mental Health Resource Hub, where they have discussion boards, and resources, and professional learning on there, across the whole state. There's also small-group peer-reflection community of practice that is set up for small group of mental health practitioners to provide peer support and guidance,and reflection on particular cases or scenarios that they're working on.

Amanda Davis - Mental Health Practitioner, Newcomb Secondary College

It's something that I really value, being able to build relationships with students, to support their wellbeing, to also get to work with families as well. June Sainsbery - Assistant Principle, Parkdale Secondary College Priya's been able to help us to explicitly teach our young people about emotional regulation and therefore enabling them to have some control over their own mental health, which in term, lets them manage that, at the end of the day helps to reduce the number of mental health presentations we're having at the school.       

Adam Johnson - Mental Health Practitioner, Eaglehawk Secondary College

What attracted me to the school setting was that it is that period in a person's life where you can have a real impact and provide early intervention. Just being able to get in and help them at that key point in their life can sometimes help set up good habits and routines that'll take them forward into adulthood.

Amanda Davis - Mental Health Practitioner, Newcomb Secondary College        

I think schools are really inspiring places, so you get to, I suppose, see students work towards their goals and to reach their potential.

I was never confident in myself, I've always put myself down but now I've got my confidence and I'm happy. 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, like, have that support in my life.

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.