The wellbeing of children in Hong Kong is poor compared to that of young people in other regions. A meta-analysis published in 2019 and covering 22 years of data found “higher levels of depressive symptoms and lower levels of general mental health among Hong Kong adolescents than adolescents in other regions.” In the 2018 PISA survey Hong Kong was ranked 64 out of 70 in the life satisfaction of secondary school students.
Among the many challenges facing young people in the city, a high-stakes education system focused on academic achievement as a narrow measure of success stands out as a major contributor to poor wellbeing. Recent research found that 44.6 per cent of school-age children named school as a factor with an “extremely or fairly negative impact on mental health.”
This high-pressure academic culture affects both local and international school students. On top of this, the social unrest of 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic have taken a toll on the wellbeing of Hong Kong’s children, the extent of which is only starting to become apparent.
At the same time, support available for young people in Hong Kong is lacking. For example, the number of psychiatrists in the territory is far below that in other developed countries relative to the population (WHO, 2017). According to the Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre, children have to wait, on average, more than a year to get an appointment with a public-sector mental health professional.
In addition to this, stigma related to mental health issues has been called a “perennial problem” and inhibits help-seeking behaviour. Although the populations of local and international schools are different, both are increasingly drawn from the local Chinese community and so share a similar cultural background.
“School counselling in Hong Kong’s local schools is woefully underdeveloped.”
Given the pressing need to support young people’s wellbeing and the poor provision available in the community, school counselling has the potential to be of enormous value. Mick Cooper, a professor of counselling psychology in the UK, has described school counselling as “a non-stigmatising, accessible, and effective form of early intervention, which ensures that every young person has someone to talk to in times of trouble.”
While school counselling in Hong Kong’s local schools is woefully underdeveloped, the more than 91,000 children attending international schools in the city (according to ISC Research, as of July 2020) fare relatively better and have greater access to this resource. This is not to say, however, that counselling in international schools is robust.
Over the past few years, my colleagues and I have carried out research into school counselling in Hong Kong which has highlighted some of the barriers which prevent counsellors from being as effective as they could be in supporting children’s wellbeing. The following is by no means comprehensive but hopefully gives a sense of the challenges which need to be addressed.
First, counsellors are most effective when they are embedded into schools’ wellbeing support systems. Counsellors perform a highly multifunctional role and often have a “big picture” of the entire ecosystem of a school, making them well placed to understand students’ needs and influence wellbeing policy.
However, despite this potential, counsellors often find themselves in peripheral or marginalised roles with little power to advocate for effective wellbeing practices. This is not unique to Hong Kong: research in the UK has also concluded that counsellors can be little more than an “extra appendage,” treated as quasi-administrative assistants. As a result, counsellors’ training and experience are underutilised.
“Counsellors can be little more than an ‘extra appendage’, treated as quasi-administrative assistants.”
Second, counsellors often suffer from a lack of role clarity. To some extent, this is part of being a school counsellor, researchers in the US suggest that “struggle with role ambiguity and incongruence” is common. In Hong Kong this experience seems almost ubiquitous, since a poor public recognition of counselling combines with the multifunctional role of counsellors to result in poor differentiation between counsellors and other professions such as social workers. This in turn constitutes a barrier to young people and their parents approaching counsellors since their roles are not communicated effectively and, therefore, they don’t know what counsellors actually do.
Third, weak relationships between school counsellors and parents limits the support counsellors can offer. In research we conducted during the school suspension period caused by the pandemic, we found that schools responded most effectively where strong pre-existing relationships between counsellors and parents existed. However, such relationships were often not present and hence made it difficult to offer effective counselling throughout the school closure.
“Schools responded most effectively where strong pre-existing relationships between counsellors and parents existed.”
Our research suggests that school counselling is often located peripherally, and at a time when wellbeing is an increasingly dominant part of school discourses. Why is this? One possibility is simply that the reality of wellbeing provision has not caught up with all the noise about it. Wellbeing provision can be superficial and piecemeal, playing second fiddle to a focus on the academic. This may be particularly the case in international schools as they compete for higher grades and more impressive university matriculation profiles.
School leaders, therefore, have a big role to play in developing school counselling to provide effective support for children in Hong Kong’s schools. Principals need a clear sense of the importance of school counselling, and a real commitment to making it part of their schools’ vision. Senior leaders can establish clear roles for counsellors, embed them into the school’s wider student support service provision, and empower them to influence wellbeing policy.
“Principals need a clear sense of the importance of school counselling, and a commitment to making it part of their schools’ vision.”
Indeed, the International Model for School Counseling Programs highlights the importance of “clear expectations and purposeful interaction with administration, teachers, staff, parents and students” in leading to “systemic change,” but only school principals can bring this about. In addition, school leaders are well placed to communicate the importance of counsellors to parents and students, and to build a school climate where counselling is normalised and wellbeing is genuinely a communal enterprise.
School counselling has been described as having “major potential to contribute to the public good.” The positive effects of school counselling are well established by research, and young people in Hong Kong would benefit greatly from the kind of positive and supportive relationships that good school counsellors can provide. The leaders of international schools are well placed to make this a reality.
This article appeared in the latest edition of Wellbeing in Independent Schools Magazine, out now.