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Primary schools struggle to help suicidal children 'as young as four'.

Dr Rosaleen McElvaney

Primary schools are dealing with very young children with serious mental health difficulties including self-harming and suicidal thoughts, according to a new study.

The findings have sparked calls for the urgent establishment of a nationwide primary schools' counselling service to provide professional back-up to principals and teachers dealing with pupils in distress.

Family issues and relationship breakdowns were cited as the most common underlying causes for distress in children. Up to a quarter of school principals also reported the occurrence of a "critical" incident in their school, varying from a bomb scare to suicide to murder.

The study was led by Dr Rosaleen McElvaney of Dublin City University's School of Nursing and Human Sciences, and was funded by St Patrick's Mental Health Services. It was conducted among primary school principals and counsellors dealing with children from 4-13 years of age throughout Ireland between August 2016 and November 2017.

Four in 10 principals responded to the online questionnaire and 10 counsellors who are currently providing counselling to primary school children were interviewed.The five most common issues reported by principals as causing children mental distress were general family issues (36pc), behaviour-related problems (18pc), anxiety (13pc), separation/divorce/marital breakdown (6pc), and academic concerns (5pc). According to the principals, family breakdown and a chaotic home life sometimes left young children upset or refusing to attend school.

Principals also reported feeling ill-equipped to respond to the complexity of children's needs and the burden now sees a third of schools providing on-site counselling on an ad-hoc basis.

Dr McElvaney said principals could not turn a blind eye to what they were being confronted with on a daily basis and there appeared to be an incredible burden on them to find funding to help children and, she said, teachers were really struggling to help children. "We know that addressing children's psychological difficulties enhances their learning experience, but the extent and range of difficulties that children are presenting with in school needs urgent attention, not only to improve their educational chances but to help them deal with their emotional struggles."

Paul Gilligan, CEO for St Patrick's Mental Health Services, said research suggested that one in three Irish children younger than 13 experienced mental health difficulties.

"This report shows that mental health supports in school are vital. Now, more than ever, children are dealing with complex and challenging issues which have a significant effect on their well-being.

"Our experiences as children shape who we are as adults and it is throughout childhood that we develop our emotional capabilities.

"The provision of early intervention at primary level has the capacity to shape the emotional well-being of an entire generation."

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