Crucial Mental Health initiative in Primary Schools is set to end at the end of March

A primary school principal has hit out at cuts to support services, while the government is providing money to tackle paramilitarism.

St John, the Baptist Primary School in Finaghy takes the pastoral care of its students very seriously. It’s on a par with its academic studies

Among the activities they can access throughout the day are the two sensory walks, a sensory room for some time out and a nurture room where they can join a Lego club among other things.

All of this is self-funded.

The Happy Healthy Minds Therapeutic and Counselling initiative helped address additional needs identified by teachers and parents meeting together to discuss their well-being in the wake of Covid.

The pilot was launched by the then Minister for Education Michelle McIlveen in November 2021 and is available for primary-aged pupils in mainstream primary schools, special schools and primary EOTAS provisions.

Alongside counselling, it provided the opportunity for a broad range of therapeutic interventions to be tested at primary school level including play, drama, music, art and equine-assisted therapy and learning.

Primary School principals reported back that it made a huge difference in children's mental health.

But all that is about to stop altogether at the end of March.

The Department of Education has spent almost £7million on it since it was launched in 2021, but the squeeze on budgets means it's unlikely that the department will have the funds to keep it going.

Chris Donnelly is the Principal of St John the Baptist Primary School on Finaghy Road North.

He said: “What the funding did was allowed us to bring in professionals, professionals to work with children for counselling. In our own case, also music therapists.”

"We saw real benefits. What is really angering me at the moment is that we're going to have that money taken away.

"Even though we know at the school level that children are benefiting today and therefore children will continue to benefit in years to come because their needs are being met. If we pull that money away, we're leaving children behind.

Siobhan O'Neill, the Northern Ireland mental health champion, says the Healthy Happy Minds program made a huge difference to many children with poor mental health.

She said: "It provided vital early intervention for young people who were at risk of developing mental health problems, who will be a burden to that mental health system if we don't get in there early.

"It's just a worry. We know that there's still a waiting list for the service, and schools are still reporting that there's a lot of need out there. So this is a cost-effective way of reducing the rates of mental health difficulties in the future. And that's something that really needs to be funded regardless of our financial situation.

The mental health charity, Pure Mental NI agrees that the cut is devastating.

Tim Burton is the Charity’s policy manager.

He said: “We'll go back to a situation where students who can afford to get private provision will get help but other schools, particularly schools in working-class areas and in rural areas who either can't access that support or don't have the funds, will just simply not be able to and we will see children go without the support they need.

"And we'll see teachers and principals rushing around to make some kind of alternate measures that really won't fill the gap”.

Christ Donnelly added: "We're 25 years after the Good Friday Agreement.

"Throwing money at tackling paramilitarism isn't going to make a damn bit of difference.

"So who's the priority for people out there? If money is tight, then we need to prioritize children above everything else”.

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