A crucial primary school counselling programme in Northern Ireland has been axed due to funding cuts.

Healthy Happy Minds provided counselling and other therapy interventions – including art, music, drama, and play therapy – to primary-aged school children across Northern Ireland, with schools receiving funding directly to buy in services.

The future of the pilot scheme has been uncertain for a while.

Jo Holmes, our Children, Young People and Families Lead, and Caryl Sibbett, our former vice chair who was representing British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT) and BAAT Northern Ireland, met Northern Ireland Education Minister Michelle McIlveen at Stormont in August to discuss the future of the programme.

Funding was extended until March 2023, but it has now been announced that the scheme will end on March 31, 2023.

Jo spoke to Radio Ulster about concerns over the closure of the scheme on Friday morning, and has also been quoted in an article in the Belfast Telegraph.

Important programme

Jo said: “We’re devastated this important programme that has made a difference in so many children’s lives has ended. Crucial primary school counselling and other creative therapy support has been snatched away from children at a time when they are facing the distressing consequences of a mental health and cost of living crisis on their wellbeing. It’s vital that measures are put in place to prevent a cliff edge of support falling away in two weeks’ time.”


She added: “We’re also concerned for the therapists who have provided these essential counselling interventions and who now face their own financial uncertainty.

“Northern Ireland had been leading the way in providing mental health support for children and had been an example of best practice – but not any longer. We’re disappointed the promised evaluation on the programme never came to fruition as well. We would like to see the results of the evaluation completed and shared.

“Speaking to a school counsellor can be a transformative experience for children and young people. It can help them cope with the difficult circumstances they face in their lives - and to go on and flourish in the future. We’re deeply saddened that this programme will no longer be providing this for children in Northern Ireland.”

We’ve worked with the British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT) and BAAT Northern Ireland to make representations to ministers to highlight the importance of the scheme and call for it to be extended.

Jo added: “We will continue to work with Ministers and commissioners in Northern Ireland to try to ensure young people have access to school counselling and other creative therapy interventions.”

Massive loss

Northern Ireland Mental Health Champion Siobhan O’Neill said in a statement that “It's a massive loss and of course I've written to the Permanent Secretary to ask if anything can be done. It comes on the back of numerous conversations where I highlighted how vital this service was.”

She said the Department of Education looked to have an “extremely challenging budget for 2023 to 2024.”