Guest post: 'The odd assembly isn't enough - teachers must talk about mental health every day'
Charlotte Walker first showed signs of bipolar disorder at 11, but wasn't diagnosed until adulthood. This Children's Mental Health Week, she writes that schools must do more to raise awareness of mental health issues, so children don't suffer in silence as she did.
Posted on: Mon 16-Feb-15 12:40:23
(169 comments )
Mental health support for under-18s is in the spotlight. A shocking lack of beds for young people and cuts to child and adolescent services have led the Labour Party to describe the current situation as a "scandal of neglect"; it is pledging to prioritise child mental health, including training teachers to spot the warning signs.
Had this been the case when I was a child, my bipolar disorder may have been recognised. I developed my first symptoms of bipolar at 11, my first depression at 12 and first suicidal thoughts at 13 - yet I wasn't diagnosed until adulthood. That sounds shocking, but it's not uncommon. The Office for National Statistics found that approximately one in ten young people will have some form of mental health disorder - around three pupils in every class - while a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found 50% of adults with a mental illness experienced initial symptoms by the age of 14.
This is why we must get mental health on the agenda in secondary schools.
Talking to my teenage son reveals the worrying lack of education around mental health. Ask him what he's been taught and he's pretty scathing. He says that it rarely gets a mention, and when it does, there's too much emphasis on problems like exam stress. Having received treatment for anxiety and depression in Year 12, he's pretty clued up on the subject and gets frustrated, knowing that adolescence is when people can start to develop much more complex conditions. "They mentioned Stephen Fry, but they didn't even say what bipolar was. There must've been kids sitting in that hall who needed to hear about the more serious stuff," he told me, and he's right.
I developed my first symptoms of bipolar at 11, my first depression at 12 and first suicidal thoughts at 13 - yet I wasn't diagnosed until adulthood.
Eating disorders are especially prevalent in the upper years of secondary school; a recent study in the British Medical Journal found that ages 15-19 is the most common time to develop anorexia or bulimia. Self-harm, often a coping strategy that points to other underlying problems, is also common. Selfharm UK suggest that around 13% of those aged 11-16 will deliberately harm themselves at some point.
Less common problems can also show up in adolescence, anxiety conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or panic attacks. In every school there will be a few, probably undiagnosed, cases of bipolar disorder or psychosis. And sadly, around 600 15-24 year-olds take their own lives every year – enough to fill a small secondary school.
Teachers must get to grips with the fact that some of their pupils will already have diagnosable problems such as clinical anxiety and depression. Discussing mental health issues may mean staff have to venture out their comfort zones, and nobody can blame them for being reluctant or anxious when asked to talk about it - as a society we're only just becoming comfortable talking about depression, never mind suicide or self-harm. It's tempting to wheel out celebrities. But starting a conversation about Stephen Fry without explaining what bipolar is, or bringing up YouTuber Zoella but not discussing how to help with a panic attack, means a wasted opportunity.
Learning about mental health is learning for life. As young people move into adulthood it's exciting to start work or university, leave home or have a first serious relationship - but major life changes can also be stressful, and can lead to anxiety or depression. This phase of life is also the most likely time for bipolar or psychosis to appear. We need to equip our children with knowledge about these conditions early, so that they're able to spot potential problems and seek help before they escalate.
The best way to support kids is to support teachers, by improving their knowledge of conditions and treatments and giving them confidence to talk about mental health. As a Mental Health First Aid instructor, I work with teachers to achieve this, giving participants with no prior knowledge the skills to support others in mental distress.
Supporting young people's mental health cannot be done via the odd PHSE lesson or a one-off assembly on World Mental Health day. It's about creating an environment in which staff have the confidence to talk about mental health every day. Stigmatising words like "psycho" or "schizo" need to be challenged, as do phrases like, "she's so bipolar" or "OCD, much?" It's about a cultural change, not just offering support or spotting symptoms, and the best place to begin a society-wide shift in attitudes is in schools.
By Charlotte Walker
I wanted to mention a petition on change.org which, among other things, is trying to improve the mental health environment in schools by reducing the insane levels of bureaucracy that are causing mental health issues in both teachers and their pupils. To support #Education #savechildhood and #LetTeachersTeach and for #HumanityInEducation please sign and share.
I just signed the petition "HM Government: Save Childhood and Take Back Our Education System" and wanted to see if you could help by adding your name.
Our goal is to reach 100,000 signatures and we need more support. You can read more and sign the petition here:
Teaching recruitment is in a state of crisis in the UK. Nearly 50,000 teachers left the profession last year – around one in twelve full time teachers – according to the Department for Education’s own statistics. According to recent research by the Teacher Support Network, a third of all teachers plan to leave the profession in the next five years and the Guardian recently reported that four in ten new teachers quit within a year. When the teaching profession loses respect, parents and children pay the price and it is not worth paying. Our data driven education system is in danger of losing its humanity. Please support this petition to:
· Ensure that teachers have a manageable work/life balance.
· Reduce government red tape and unnecessary bureaucracy which is creating intolerable pressure and making teachers lives impossible, forcing them to spend their time ticking boxes and doing unnecessary and unproductive work rather than actually teaching.
· Reduce teaching to the test which is leading to less creativity and increased stress and anxiety in teachers and their pupils as well as fuelling unnecessary bureaucracy. Petition the government to stop children being tested from a younger and younger age.
· Force OFSTED and the independent schools’ inspectorate services to ensure that the school inspection regime is made to be a part of the solution and actively assist in implementing change in failing schools rather than just pointing out a school’s shortcomings and walking away from the problem as at present.
· Reduce unacceptable levels of teacher scrutiny and trust teachers to get on with their jobs.
· Encourage a culture of collaboration within schools’ management rather than one of competition.
· Work to depoliticise education and reduce government meddling.
· Realise that childhood is precious and encourage an education environment that is geared towards protecting it.
· Create an environment that fosters a love of learning and protects the mental health of teachers and their pupils.
I coudn't agree more Solitary but it makes me think also of the child with stressors that are in school only - eg bullying, or undiagnosed SEN.
There needs to be SOMEONE in school, who is regularly in touch with the children, to be able to identify early warning signs, backed up with adequate services to refer on to.
There is unarguably an overlap between education and health; and both professions should be working together to lobby the government to fill the gaps and give teachers the support needed; that is what's missing, imho.
Children's Mental Health Week?
Did they intend to launch it at half term?
I agree micbat. A child that is abused, depressed, neglected, hungry, dealing with all sorts of stressers ouside of school cannot concentrate or function to the best of their ability. They are too focused trying to survive.
A lot of the changes over the last couple of decades have meant providing for the whole child is no longer the priority. It's an inconvenience, not something you can level and assess and get accolades for.
I am a child psychotherapist who works in schools. I have tried very hard to get schools to agree to having some input from qualified MH professionals to put MH on the agenda in discussions with young people. They don't want to fund this and they don't want to take time "off curriculum", which completely ignores that fact that someone sitting in a classroom with undiagnosed depression or anxiety may be find it difficult to take much in unless they get some support.
I see alarming levels of self harm, suicidal tendency on a regular basis and don't feel that teachers should be asked to deal with this.
I have long argued for preventative work on emotional wellbeing which should start as early as possible. I used to run groups in infants/primary schools on this but the funding was cut (surprise!).
I would lobby for this to be put in place for young people and to be seen as a whole school approach and not expect teachers to have to add it to the endless list of things to do
Interestingly, CAMHS seems to support teacher training in children’s mental health - I don’t think they (or YoungMinds or Rethink) are viewing it as government wriggling out of adequate service provision.
The final report from the National Advisory Council for CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services). Particularly relevant for teacher education are in section 4.1 and Appendix 1. The report calls for teachers to have training in children's mental health.
Awareness training is very different to invention or 1st aid training and only a few hour, rather than 2 days.
No-one is saying this would provide teachers with the skills to teach or advise on MH, but to refer on effectively at the earliest opportunity.
I think most of those questions have already been answered upthread Callooh - I think it should be funded, certainly in part, if not in full through Health, and that schools will/should have policies which outline child safeguarding, including mental ill health/suicidal thoughts - it's an extension of that I think, and covered in the courses I think (along with discussing and accepting the times you cannot help).
It seems odd to worry more about getting sued for missing something after training (I really don't think suing would happen btw) when awareness training means you would be less likely to. Perhaps schools would be more likely to be sued if they refused to engage in training at all.
There is absolutely zero chance in my school (and probably most others) that two whole inset days out of five would be devoted to whole school staff training on MH issues. Zero.
So no reassurance can be given that all secondary teachers would be knowledgeable or willing to spot signs of MH issues in students. I would think those that are knowledgeable would be in a distinct minority.
In primary, the Learning Mentors are invaluable. Schools also used to fund play therapists for identified children who needed them, but most have stopped that due to funding issues.
'But all staff in schools could do with MH awareness training.'
I could make a list of a dozen or more training sessions that I've done over two years; from allergies and asthma to dyslexia and bereveament to dyscalculia and Makaton.
Doesn't make me an expert on any of those things, or qualified to speak and advise on them.
No, it isn't. But an effective response is what's needed, rather than just a two day training course to add to everything else.
Do you have any idea how badly the majority of MS schools handle SN? How little teachers actually know about the wide range of needs that have to be met? What makes you think that adding MH to the list of specialities and areas of responsibility will be any use?
Yes, it's an increasing problem. Which is why there should be specialist support in place.
I agree Solitary - I think there should be someone in school who is fully trained to respond and intervene to a MH crisis. But all staff in schools could do with MH awareness training.
Geez, I barely know where to start in reponse to that Solitary.
But I am sure the answer isn't to do nothing and pretend it isn't happening.
' I believe there should be AT LEAST one teacher trained in every school including Primary School. In my case my son was in year 6 when anxiety began....please if anyone else agrees then sign and share my petition to the government to fund schools for approx 300 pounds to train one member of staff in mental health first aid.'
Why a teacher? Why not a trained MH counsellor in every school? They could deal with all of us, staff and pupils alike.
I do understand the anguish of subject teachers, and the pressures on them, so I am also wondering about the role of form tutor (do they even still have these? lol at my ignorance - I've a lot to get up to speed with before DS starts secondary!) who might have more important daily contact with pupils, and be able to identify any problems more readily?
Do you have any idea how many of us have mental illnesses, are on medication and suffer from stress, depression and other related syndromes?
How hypocritical to expect us to be spouting on about good practice when we have so little say in our own mental health issues, work/life balance and are barely coping in the classroom.
Do you really want us to be honest and truthful in our teaching?
I agree totally. Just a lack of basic understanding of how some mental illness can present itself ie. Anxiety symptoms can often be misinterpreted as bad behaviour (when actually a child feels extremely threatened and is displaying fight or flight instinct). This was misinterpreted from my DS in yr6 & treated as such by a teacher who sadly refused to even believe it could be MH related leading to a total downward spiral in what should have been a fun end to primary years. I appreciate this isn't the attitude of all teachers, but I can't understand or tolerate a complete rejection of even a small amount of training to give them an insight into how some children may be feeling inside but unable to talk about.
As we have all said, I believe, we recognise the importance of it, and put into place recommendations given, and would welcome and support mental health professionals dealing with this in schools. We can look out for vague signs while we hand out 30 worksheets, challenge 3 kids for being late, count in homework, lend pens, teach challenging and differentiated lessons and do all the preparation and marking but no we can't do more.
I don't think anyone is asking for all that much more tbh. But would you not prefer a better understanding of the "vague" signs of MH issues than you have just been able to pick up randomly along the way? What currently qualifies you to understand what these signs are and what they might mean?
It is fantastic there are teachers on this thread who refer on, and are more than willing to work with recommendations after referral, but I do have some questions around this.
Can you give me, as a parent, any reassurance that ALL the secondary teachers, who will be the first point of contact for my DS and responsible for him for a significant amount of hours a day, will be willing and knowledgable enough to look out for signs that they may (or may not) understand to mean a MH issue? That any signs will not be dismissed as lazy, destructive or "bad" behaviour? Or that these signs will be picked up/acting upon in a timely enough manner to ensure early intervention by a professional, as soon as possible?
Because currently, even though I really appreciate the efforts on this thread, these are what remain my concern.
I have to say, I think mental health issues are a bit more complicated than many physical illnesses, as with something like, for example, diabetes, the mechanisms and cause of the illness is fairly well understood. This is not the case at all with mental illness, and indeed it's likely that most mental illnesses have multiple causes or different causes in different people. They can also display differently, and different treatments work for different people.
You know what? I think if the biology syllabus even just covered a paragraph like that, perhaps with some names of MH conditions and some general info around recovery and types of treatment (using combinations of medication, talking therapies, and lifestyle changes etc) it would be better than nothing. It would at least bring mental and physical health together on the same level (it is so damaging to segregate it) and would not necessarily linger on anything that may be uncomfortable for anyone. Maybe something could be set as homework to research, rather than covering in depth in class.
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