MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Mon 16-Feb-15 12:40:23

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.

Charlotte Walker

Purple Persuasion

Posted on: Mon 16-Feb-15 12:40:23


Lead photo

'Stigmatising words like "psycho" or "schizo" need to be challenged.'

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

Twitter: @BipolarBlogger

hijk Mon 16-Feb-15 13:41:14

Don't be ridiculous, exactly when are teachers supposed to find the time to talk about this, even if they ever found the time to train up in it enough to be competent to talk about it. Or do you just think mental health discussion is another thing to throw at teachers to stick into their lesson plans along with all the other things we are supposed to include every day, whether we know anything about it or not, such as black history, loan sharks, gender stereotypes, the manufacturing industry, how to be happy, homophobic bullying, democracy, the legal system, etc etc etc, all of which, and more are already supposed to be included in all lessons every day, goodness knows when teachers are supposed to teach their actual subject.

hijk Mon 16-Feb-15 13:46:00

I just wrote a long response along the lines that teachers are supposed to teach their own subjects, and this long list of everything else that has to be included every day, developmental sexuality, black history, origins of gender stereo types, the youth justice system, loan sharks, democratic systems, the manufacturing industry, employability, homophobic bullying, inclusion, etc etc etc is just stupid.

We know our subjects.

What the hell do I know about how to finance a car, or diagnosing mental illnesses,

Stop dumping all this on me to "teach" - I can't, I have my SUBJECT to teach.

AmantesSuntAmentes Mon 16-Feb-15 13:54:17

The best way to support kids is to support teachers

I disagree. The best way to support 'kids', is to support parents, surely?

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.

So, is this education and support available to parents and parents who tutor home educated children?

26Point2Miles Mon 16-Feb-15 14:14:48

I read this and 'support the Labour Party, they are going to make these changes we need'

Bugger off with the politics please!

26Point2Miles Mon 16-Feb-15 14:15:18

*as not and!

BossWitch Mon 16-Feb-15 14:24:22

We, as a profession, cannot accept any more responsibility for the raising of other people's kids. Educate parents about mental health and find the money to increase spending in the nhs to deal with it. It is a health issue, it should be dealt with by the health service. Not in education. It's not that I don't care about my students' mental health. I do; I am watchful and I have been involved in support and intervention for a range of mental health problems. I have taught a student who had to be sectioned at 17 due to multiple suicide attempts. But my -'talking about mental health issues everyday' would have been fuck all use to her and impossible to accommodate in my schedule without the removal of something else - either other aspects of pastoral care or teaching my subject.


fluffywhitekittens Mon 16-Feb-15 14:28:44

Some interesting points in this article

BossWitch Mon 16-Feb-15 14:52:51

Just read that article fluffy linked. Abso-fucking-lutely.

noblegiraffe Mon 16-Feb-15 14:56:59

I'm a teacher. I teach kids with mental health problems. Ones who are self-harming, ones suffering from panic attacks, anxiety, eating disorders, school refusal, mental burnout.

I teach in a state comp. The amount of training I've had to deal with these issues is zero. Any time I talk to these kids I'm acutely aware that I could actually make them worse.

So please don't tell me to talk to kids about mental health. I've got enough on my plate.

If you want to train me so that I know how to respond appropriately to a panic attack or a kid who self-harms, that would be appreciated.

OTheHugeManatee Mon 16-Feb-15 16:47:56

I think if governments of all colours could bring themselves to stop thinking about school as a delivery mechanism for the preferred social engineering du jour and concentrate on letting teachers teach, y'know, subjects, our education system would be in a far better state.

EvilTwins Mon 16-Feb-15 17:00:58

The secret teacher article is very astute. I've been in this career for 18 years. It's amazing kids pass any GCSEs at all given how much time per lesson is meant to go on literacy, numeracy, making SMSC explicit, teaching British values etc etc. I teach Drama FFS. And as a PP has said. No training for dealing with mental health issues. How am I to know if my involvement is beneficial? What if I make things worse? One of my students attempted suicide last year. None of us saw it coming. Yr 11s are stressed about the pressure of exams. I simply do not have the knowledge to help them. Why are teachers supposed to replace parents?

ChampagneAndCrisps Mon 16-Feb-15 17:13:35

There's a difference between Mental Wellbeing - and Mental Illness - and I think the way this original post has been written confuses the two.

I can understand that teachers need to be aware of issues around their teenage pupils mental wellbeing, but it's not a teachers role to pick up on actual early psychiatric illness. Anything they could teach about such illness would be a broad overview.

There's no mention of the conditions more likely to affect teenagers - Tourette's syndrome, Autistic Spectrum Disorder and ADHD. It's a narrow view of your own experience.

If a child actually does have early signs of Psychiatric illness surely it is up to the parents to seek help from the Medical Professionals and not from teachers.

I am all for a more open approach about these issues, but teenagers go through many changes and I would worry that there is a risk of some of them thinking they have a Psychiatric illness having been taught about it by someone who doesn't really know about it.

hijk Mon 16-Feb-15 17:15:43

The whole idea is just bonkers. Get a grip, op.

duplodon Mon 16-Feb-15 17:32:36

Very pleasant attitudes here. You teach people, not subjects - that's a rather inconvenient fact for some teachers, but it's a fact, nonetheless. There are also obviously subject areas where it is going to be easier to approach these issues. Don't your schools also have Tutorials, tutor groups etc? The attitudes are very telling... What if I teach someone x and y happens.. Fear for self, fear of causing harm. It's a type of stigma and secrecy around something that's actually massively common. If you have kids with mh issues in class, it's not in likely you'll see signs of stress, poor conduct, withdrawal etc. Tell the school nurse if you must but it's a bit unfortunate that the first concern here is for how this impacts on teacher wellbeing.

EvilTwins Mon 16-Feb-15 17:45:49

duplodon I am a teacher. That is my profession. Why do I also have to be a self-sacrificing martyr? Why should my own wellbeing come second place? My students are very important to me, but I am not their mother. They are not my top priority - my own children are far more important to me.

I have absolutely no training in mental health issues, and am therefore just as likely to cause harm. My students know I have an open door - if they want to talk to me, they can, and they do. But my "action" is to pass it on, not to attempt to deal with it myself.

I'm sorry if you think that makes me crap at my job hmm

hijk Mon 16-Feb-15 18:00:17

no, duplon, it is sheer bloody overload.

We are teachers, our aim is to impart academic knowledge of our subject to younger people, if they want it.

Instead, we are expected to take responsibility for the following.

Have our pupils got out of bed at a reasonabale time? if not, what have we done about it? Have they had breakfast, if not, what have we done about it? Did they arrive at school in time, if not, what have we done about it? Are they wearing the correct uniform ,do they have the correct equipment, did the y do their homework, do they have a place to do their homework, do they have internet access, do they have nits, do they have free school meals, have they filled in their travel form, have we correctly recorded their ethnic origin, are they watching inappropriately rated films at home, what age did they walk, what age did they talk, What is their standard of maths, what are their targets in maths, how are we including their maths targets into every single lesson, ( I am not a maths teacher) What are their standards in literacy, what are their targets in literacy, are we including their literacy targets in every single lesson? ( I am not an English teacher) What is their predicted grade, what is their aspirational grade, what is their working grade, what is their target grade, have we explained how we are closing the gap between these 4 grades in every single lesson, what employability are we incorporating into lessons, ( actually, this is supposed to be about once every half an hour) what are we doing to affirm their ethnic identity ( again, once every half an hour) what are their social targets, How many British values have we incorporated into each half day of teaching, for this week, have they self assessed themselves yet today ( has to happen every day), have they peer assessed each other yet today, ( has to happen every day) have we raised their awareness of homosexuality yet today, have we reitterated the importance of condoms yet today, have we reminded them of the directions to the sexual health clinic, what have we done today to address self confidence issues and low self esteem, are we publically following the bulllying policy, have we incorporated he ICT policy into the lesson, have the students filled in their feedback forms, must happen at least once a week, how do we show we are responding to student voice, have we ensured each student has 3 smart targets for our subject, and have we timetabled in the review, are we working on conflict resolution in the class, have we informed all the parents of the latest targets, have we phoned the parents of everyone who had arrived late, or has not done their homework, have we highlighted the moral superiority of democrasy, have we rearranged our lessons so the muslim students can leave to pray,are we providing extra support to the non english speakers, the asd students ( now in about very class I know) , the ADHD students, the dopeheads, the dyslexics, etc etc etc what are we doing differently for the students on the MAGOT list, are we differentiating for the other three (minimum) catagories of students, have we got our learning objectives on the board, and have we worded them correctly, ( the policy on wording learning objectives changes constantly, so what was acceptable last month may well be different this month) Have we clearly differentiated between the aim, the outcome and the objective, have we included activities for kinesthetic, visual and aural learners ( even thought this has been shown to be a myth)

I could go on and on and on......

All this has to be incorporated into each SUBJECT. and mostly into each lesson. This is not what I became a teacher for, I am not responsible for what bloody time a bloody student has breakfast!!!

Pshe is also a SUBJECT with a hugely overloaded curriculum.

This stupid idea to just throw yet more work and responsibility at teachers is just going to be the straw that breaks the camels back in many cases.

We are not doctors, we are not social workers, we are not psychiatrists the whole premise is ignorant in the extreme.

Yo wouldn't go and see your GP to complain about not understanding your geography coursework would you?

No, because it would not be his/her problem, responsibility or area of expertise, and he has other things to do with his time.

hijk Mon 16-Feb-15 18:03:09

duplon, we do not in fact deal with people, or with subjects, we deal with paperwork, and targets, and administration, and the format of the lesson plan, and the scheme of work, and the bloody objectives.

thatsn0tmyname Mon 16-Feb-15 18:08:45

I teach science in a state comp and I care about every one of my students. I am not a doctor and have had no medical training. I cannot diagnose mental illness but I know when something isn't right. I can, and do, flag up concerns when they arise. In the hour that I spend teaching my students in a typical week I cannot make a big difference to their personal lives. Students can have up to 18 teachers on their timetables so we cannot spot everything and we cannot solve all of societies ills. That really needs to start at home. However, I would like some more training on spotting the signs. And if it requires an inset day or two, let's not start another discussion about what a ballache they are and "why aren't they happening in the summer" blah blah.

LizzieVereker Mon 16-Feb-15 18:19:50

No no no no no. I am not a nurse, a social worker or a mental health professional, I am a teacher of an academic subject.

I do care a great deal about the well being of my students, and I am acutely aware that some of them suffer from mental health problems. I am also acutely aware that I am not remotely qualified to deal with these problems, which is why I firmly believe that the extent of my involvement should be compassion, and referring the student to the right external agency if necessary. I will go so far as to check that that they are receiving care, but that is all.

To suggest that I should be more involved in the diagnosis or treatment of these conditions through discussion is frankly irresponsible, and making teachers responsible risks the further erosion of professional mental health services for young people. Sending me on a short course is not going to replace proper therapy or care. Please, please fight for professional mental health services for young people, instead of trying to wedge it into school.

I don't believe that mental health issues should be swept under the carpet, but anyone who thinks that teachers have time to stop and discuss it, in an academic lesson, in our target driven culture, is very sadly mistaken.

I am astounded by the naivety and irresponsibility in the OP.

noblegiraffe Mon 16-Feb-15 18:29:47

fear of causing harm

Of course I've got fear of causing harm. Do you really want me tinkering with young minds with amateur tools? I asked a kid with severe anxiety why he was late to my lesson (first lesson, I didn't know who he was). He then refused to come to my lesson for the next few weeks. These kids are vulnerable and the last thing they need is me, with my degree in maths and no training in mental health, attempting to get them to spot the signs of bipolar disorder.

AmantesSuntAmentes Mon 16-Feb-15 18:33:01

Fear for self, fear of causing harm. It's a type of stigma and secrecy around something that's actually massively common.

I don't see that as stigma or secrecy, I see that as a responsible approach.

When people are coached on the mn mh board, that posters are not MHC professionals, it is not to create stigma or secrecy, it is to ensure those with mh problems seek proper advice, from qualified individuals and that those advising, remain aware of their limited experience and the potential consequences of their advice. Not stigma, not secrecy but an appropriately responsible approach.

Having read all of the teachers responses here, I stand by my initial post:

The "best way to support kids", is to support parents, surely?

I am also still interested in knowing whether the education in skills and support described in the op, is available to parents and to parents who tutor home educated children. (?)

duplodon Mon 16-Feb-15 18:55:59

Honestly, mh has been done a huge disservice by the idea that a foot out of place and someone's mind will cave in. Mostly people need compassion, recognition as a human being, kindness... And if it's genuinely beyond that, you have a school nurse.

Hijk, the problem in everything you posted is not that considering wellbeing would be the final straw, it is that all of these things treat young people and you as their teachers as products/statistics instead of human beings and that is a root and cause of everything that's wrong with the world today: reductionist, mechanistic, inhumane. If you could all relate as humans together it would be preferential for everyone.

hijk Mon 16-Feb-15 18:57:41

duplon, I am sure you are right about that.

howtodrainyourflagon Mon 16-Feb-15 19:10:31

I wish the labour party would sod off from doing stickies on active conversations. And the other parties too, for balance. Someone in labour party head office is thinking "oh gosh we need to do something to get votes from the wimminz now we have universal suffrage and all that. I guess they're too busy thinking about kittenz and cupcakez to notice we have sod all to say about the economy... quick we need some gimmicks: every teacher has mention mental health every day cos that's free, innit, and give dads better paid paternity leave cos its only a few weeks not like maternity leave".


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