The National School Chaplaincy Program Is an Accident Waiting to Happen

Around one in five young Australians suffers from mental illness. These include anxiety and depressive disorders, as well as complex conditions like anorexia and bulimia. Some 10 per cent of young Australians suffer abuse or neglect while one in five has a parent with poor mental health (21%) or a physical disability (19%).

Young people with mental health issues are at increased risk of dropping out of school, becoming homeless, or ending up in the justice system. They are five times as likely to abuse drugs or alcohol (and from there wind up having unsafe sex, drink-driving or street brawling) and more likely to self-harm and suicide.

Children’s mental health services are inadequately funded. Much like adult mental health services, this is not because we lack the money, but have chosen to spend it on something else.

That something else is school chaplaincy. Last week the Gillard government pre-empted its own review and increased the program’s funding by more than a third. The total cost to the taxpayer now stands at $437 million.

You might think a government with $437 million would have an eye to the pain and suffering caused when youth mental health problems go untreated. You might think that government would be duty-bound to provide evidence-based solutions by addressing the woeful shortage of qualified counselors in schools (in NSW the one to every 1050 students is more than double the recommended ratio). After all, and quite literally, the lives of children are at stake.

You might think so, but you’d be wrong. Instead, the Gillard government has deployed chaplains. School chaplains come from organizations like Scripture Union Australia which sees them as a means by which they can fulfil their organizational aim of, “mak[ing] God’s Good News known to children [and] young people” so “they may come to personal faith in our Lord Jesus Christ…and become both committed church members.”

The Government knows chaplains are evangelical Christians, not mental health experts. This is why departmental guidelines prohibit chaplains from counseling students. They also ban chaplains from providing educational and medical services, as well as from proselytising. All of which begs the question: what exactly are we paying chaplains $20,000 each to do?

I’m not the only one wondering. As a report on the program reveals, many chaplains are unclear about their role. A majority admits they do deal with student mental health and depression issues, student alcohol and drug use, physical/emotional abuse and neglect, and suicide and self-harming behaviours. What most don’t do is refer to appropriate professionals when out of their depth.

This is not an argument against religion in schools, though one can clearly be made. Rather it is an argument about wrong choices made for bad reasons that are putting our most vulnerable schoolchildren at risk. In a world of scarce resources, money spent on chaplains is money that could have brought-wait for it-around 5000 qualified counselors into our schools.

Chaplains are also accidents waiting to happen, which may be why the Government can’t get far enough away from them when legal liability issues are mentioned. In various communications, it stresses that chaplains are not employees of the education department and suggests that the buck stops with school principals, Chaplaincy Service Providers or the school P&C.

So what did our children to deserve our negligence? Nothing. It’s just that Labor needs to pick up an additional 1% of the religious vote in Queensland.

Sorry kids.

Publication history

Why are we robbing our littlies to preach Paul?  The Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)