How can we tackle the issue of mental health?
… about 850,000 children and young people in Great Britain have a mental disorder. (Young Minds)
Exams and testing students at a young age, coupled with social media ‘could be damaging their sleep and increasing their risk of anxiety and depression‘ and leading to stress and mental health issues in an increasing number of young people.
A different kind of childhood:
For the first 20 years of my life, growing up in the Salvation Army proved to be a very interesting childhood. My parents worked in the social services side of the charity, deployed to various hostels for youth offenders and homeless people throughout the 80s and 90s in Scotland, England and Wales.
Returning home from school was always an interesting perspective for me. Having done the usual things at school – studying, playing and homework – I would return home and walk through the front door to my home. Only for the first 20 years, my home was a ‘hostel for homeless people’ – albeit an annex to the main building – for a variety of children, women and men, some who had committed crimes or were the victim of alcohol, drugs and general issues such a debt, bereavement, and well-being. There were of course many cases of physical and mental illness and abuse.
When I think back over those 20 years, I wonder how this lifestyle impacted on me? More importantly, there are three or four people who particularly stood out.
There was Phillip who was diagnosed schizophrenic. He would ask me every time I saw him, “when are you going to university?” even when I had told him I had finished study several years before. Phillip was a clever man, full of opinion, but he had bouts of unpredictable behaviour that challenged the status-quo. We had very limited conversations throughout my teens and early-20s.
There was Peter who was drunk out of his mind from 9am in the morning. His nose blue from rosacea. I am reminded of his drunken-poetry that made us both smile and laugh as he told me stories about the sea, his family and his lady-friends.
Among many other anecdotes, there were women and men who I watched ‘kick each other heads in’; those who would beat my father up (and trust me, my father was a big man) until he was black and blue demanding he gave them their dole money to buy more beer …
On other occasions to earn a living wage for my return to university, I’d start ‘cleaning dormitories and toilets’ on my shift in the hostel, only to discover a dead body first thing in the morning! One man propped upright, sat at the corner of the bed in the position he first took off his clothes …
The outcome? A heart attack, not the result of the issues that put him in the hostel in the first place.
And then there was Jim.
There was even a time I helped my father barge open a door because the man behind it – Jim – had taken an insulin overdose. As we pushed through, he was vomiting whilst sprawled on the floor unconscious. Five or 10 minutes later, he would have choked on his vomit and would’ve died there and then.
I was just 17 years old.
I’ll never forget the day I saw him drunk out of his mind. I watched my father give his a ‘firm clip’ around the ear to bring him to his senses. It made no difference.”
Jim was a man very close to our family, someone who followed my parents to whatever location they were employed so that he remain accustomed to some sort of routine and family life. Jim had strabismus and I’ll never forget the day when he passed his driving test when I was 16 years old. It was a sense of freedom and achievement for someone embroiled in alcohol and drug abuse.
Several months later, my father asked me to come to the morgue as an 18 year-old to identify his body. I have no idea why my father asked me. Probably because in many ways, Jim was a friend of the family and perhaps my father thought it was prove a steep learning curve.
I have no idea, but it was a notable moment in my first 18 years of life.
Observing Jim lifeless, I’ll never forget his peaceful body, resting face-upwards above the white sheet that was placed on top of him from neck-to-toe. He was perched in a bare room behind a glass window, which I can only assume was where the autopsy was concluded to determine the reasoning for his death.
You can see a photo of Jim (second right) performing next to my father – The Salvation Army Hostel, Fleetwood, Lancashire 1989.
Twenty years later, I see some of these events and behaviours in some of the students I teach.
Debating the issues:
This weekend has been an interesting one on Twitter to the observer.
Actually, it started before that if you have been reading from the sidelines, but I have no idea how true this claim is or not.
In a room full of privileged men who think children thrive under pressure, the DfE’s mental-health champion discovers her angry voice.” (TES)
Regardless of the claim, the issues remain at the heart of a complex debate. In March of this year, Devon wrote her own blog for TES about a mysterious ‘professor’ who was influencing education policy. This professor claimed ‘stress was good for children‘ and that mental health issues were not the same as mental illnesses; that mental health literacy classes could solve any problems arising in young people. Devon was angry, pointing out that his advice absolved the government of having to think about the impact of testing, teacher stress and poor health care.
Devon seemed to know something, writing; ‘… however long it may now last’ in relation to her post as champion.
We are a nation of testing students from a very young age. We only need to look at the key stage 2 test fiasco last month for a recent reminder of the impact testing can have on students and teachers.
Childline received a 200% increase in children calling to request exam stress counselling in 2015, NSPCC.”
Failure and stress can lead to other problems too. Both are hard to deal with as an adult, never mind coping with as a child.
Sure enough, in May Devon was fired, upon which several things were revealed.
Firstly, that the professor in her blog was Stan Kutcher, the man who famously said of children’s mental health, ‘there is no crisis, for heaven’s sake’. You can read Devon’s response to people who deny the mental health crisis in young people here which makes for some disturbing reading.
According to Young Minds, about “7% of young people aged 15-16 in England self-harm.” I can re-call at least 1 or 2 students in each of the schools I have worked in, who have self-harmed in my presence as a senior teacher.
Once I was covered in blood after pulling a student back from repeatedly head-butting a wall. Another, who showed me the razor blade he had just used to slash his abdomen.
Most of the time, issues arise due to events outside of school, rather than in school such as an outcome of testing. Students and adults do these things in front of others as a ‘cry for help’.
Despite my unique background in the Salvation Army dealing with abuse, death and self-harm which has given me sufficient experience to be able to deal with these situations, I have never felt competent enough to offer expertise. I know my job is to teach first and foremost. I also know tests are stressful, but may be the ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’ rather than a single indicator.
I think of the students in the schools I have worked, those who need CAMHS referrals because of the support offered at home or in school is not sufficient. Teachers are not experts, nor are they expected to deal with mental illness, but as a duty of care, every adult working with children must have the highest regard for safeguarding children, and in whatever form.
The Guardian reported that the DfE had been putting constant pressure on Devon during her time as champion, covertly suggesting what she blogged and tweeted. Her refusal to be controlled was part of the reason she was let go.
… a thorn in the flesh” of the DfE after speaking out against government policies. (The Guardian)
It is hardly surprising that when teachers – myself included – who have not been particularly vocal about children’s mental health in the past, write about this issue. Bennett wrote a lengthy piece for TES in praise of Kutcher, questioning whether testing has an impact on mental health.
… only mental health professionals are qualified to diagnose mental illness, not well-meaning armchair bloggers or columnists … or even teachers.” (TES)
Was this an innocent coincidence? Have no doubt, tests do lead to stress in students. But whether or not testing children from the ages of 5 years old (in the UK), leads to mental health issues also needs researching. Yet, qualified teachers in schools can make CAMHS referrals for students with concerns.
Schools need to have a good understanding of the mental health support services that are available in their local area, both through the NHS and voluntary sector organisations. They should work closely with local health partners to ensure that they are clear when referrals to CAMHS are appropriate. (DfE Mental Health guidance 2.17)
Whether you think Devon is a conspiracy theorist or you think that DfE could be pulling strings, the behaviour of professional adults on Twitter should be questioned.
Observing social media tweets this weekend, voices have been quoted and pawned from one to the other. It transpired that people received over 3 hours of abuse from people ‘claiming to be teachers’ which was difficult to observe.
The greater good:
I wrote in May 2016 about TwitterEdu’s anonymous trolls. We all know who they are … or at least what transpires, is at least one person you know in-real life, knows one person who knows the identity on an anonymous account. These faceless folk seem obsessed with anyone-not-a-teacher offering their views on education; Devon and many others included.
I’ve been on the back-end of stuff like this and was again the recipient of some abuse after tweeting this about murdered MP Jo Cox. These are real people with anonymous IDs, people who claim to be teachers and governors in their biographies, yet clearly over step the mark with their opinions. Why not express yourself from a transparent ID for the greater good of the debate? We are proud of freedom of speech in the UK, but this anonymous communication is despicable behaviour for education professionals; accounts should be reported as a breach of the Teachers’ Standards.
While the majority of referrals to specialist services are made for difficulties and behaviours which are more immediately apparent and more disruptive (externalising difficulties), there are increasing levels of concern about the problems facing more withdrawn and anxious children, given the likelihood of poor outcomes in later life. (DfE Mental Health guidance page 42)
There is a complicated debate to be had about mental health. It’s best that we all work together for the benefit of our students and society as a whole. We need to be honest, humble and compassionate about the likes of Phillip and Peter and Jim, whose issues started out long before adulthood.
Hugh McGill dedicated his life to the work of The Salvation Army, helping those who are in need … particularly those with mental health issues and addiction.
Hugh McGill (1941 – 2004) speaking with women from the local community.
(*this blog is dedicated to my father – for Father’s Day 2016.)