As the coronavirus pandemic forces students to adapt to a new education system, a surge in mental health issues is anticipated among them. However, their concerns could be left unaddressed by schools due to a shortage of guidance counselors.
As of May 2020, the Department of Education (DepEd) only has 1,096 active counselors.
Education Undersecretary Jesus Mateo told Rappler on Thursday, September 3, that there are a total of 5,398 "authorized" positions for the profession, but only 20% have been filled due to the low salary.
"The problem is limited supply given the low salary grade (SG) of 11," Mateo said. SG 11 is equivalent to P22,316.
With 20 million public school students, it is next to impossible to meet the recommended ratio of one guidance counselor for every 500 students, as mandated by the agency.
Acknowledging the need for guidance counselors during the pandemic, Mateo said that DepEd has partnered with different organizations to help them address the need for psychosocial support among students and teachers.
Aside from this, Mateo said that DepEd is also training teachers to provide counseling to students.
"[DepEd] is also proposing to increase the entry level [salary] of guidance counselors," he added.
DepEd has also ordered Schools Division Offices (SDOs) to set up a phone hotline or online platform to provide remote mental health services for schools without a registered guidance counselor.
Years of stagnant career growth and a low salary grade have left some guidance counselors unwilling to stay in a "dead-end" profession, said Francis Subong, public relations officer of the Philippine Guidance and Counseling Association.
"Just imagine our children: they are [supposed to be] playing, but because of COVID-19 they are confined in a small space," Subong said.
Subong added, "Just like a glass of water [filling up], for every emotional or psychosocial or psychological wound, it adds up. Just imagine what happens after that. What happens to them is not processed."
It is important for the youth to have social interaction even if they are restricted to their homes, said Marie Diane Monsada of the Department of Behavioral Sciences in the University of the Philippines Manila.
Monsada, who works in the field of adolescent development, said the limitations brought on by the pandemic take a toll on basic education students, who are in their critical developmental years.
"Some people would think that mental health is just about the disorders. When we talk about mental health, it’s composed of different aspects of one’s wellness, specifically [their] social interaction, communication skills, and their ability to meet different people and express their emotions," she said.
As mental health professionals, guidance counselors are trained to ensure the development of students by offering both psychological and educational support.
But they may struggle to fulfill this role even more this year, especially for students with no access to the internet or those who cannot enroll due to lack of finances. (READ: No student left behind? During pandemic, education 'only for those who can afford')
Camarin National High School in Caloocan City, for instance, has only one registered guidance counselor, Jocelyn Antipala, who caters to the needs of more than 10,000 students.
"[Before] the pandemic, you could immediately [provide] counseling because you need to address the mental health needs of the students. That’s our struggle now. If there is a sensitive case, that’s really hard for us to follow up," Antipala said.
She adds that spending over 100 days in isolation has definitely taken a toll on both students and school personnel.
Students and their parents also often get misled into viewing the guidance office as a disciplinary office. This is because teachers would often refer students to the guidance office for breaking school rules, even though guidance counselors say it is not their job to impose sanctions.
This stigma has made students hesitant to seek counseling services for their mental health needs, said Joan Cañeda, guidance coordinator of Iligan National High School in Iligan City.
Cañeda said students’ parents would even feel ashamed for being invited to meet with guidance counselors.
"We need to correct the mentality of the parents. It doesn’t mean that when their child is called by the office, they’ve committed a mistake," she said, emphasizing that their doors are always open for students that need a "listening ear" for any kind of concern.
Students of Iligan National High School can still avail of the guidance office’s services this year as they will be operating remotely, she said, but she doubts that many would "subject themselves" to "telecounseling" services.
"Children are scared to go," Cañeda said.
DepEd held webinars in April that focused on training its personnel to provide psychological first aid, a form of first-line response to cushion the blow of a distressing event on a person.
Schools will also be devoting the first week of classes to mental health and psychosocial programs, which include discussion and facilitation of modules related to mental health, among others.
Due to the said low salary, guidance counselors – who have to obtain a master’s degree and pass a licensure examination to become registered – see little reason to stay in a job that offers almost no career growth.
Some guidance counselors can even get stuck in the same entry-level salary grade for years.
"Personally you want to help as a counselor, but…. What will happen to you if you enter DepEd and you have a family for example?" Subong said.
For years, the PGCA has been pushing the government for an improvement in guidance counselors’ salary grade, to no avail.
They hope instead now for the passage of a magna carta in Congress that will improve their salary grade and qualify them for hazard pay, a move that would also include counselors in higher educational institutions and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA).
The government’s many pronouncements on mental health should be felt on the ground, Subong said.
"Mental health, yes it gains traction, but only by word. Its effects don’t stick. It’s not yet embraced – how mental health affects the way you think, the way you behave, the learning process. They don’t understand it yet," he added.
Cristina Chi is a Rappler volunteer. She is an incoming sophomore student at the University of the Philippines Diliman, taking up Journalism.