Teaching teenagers about psychological problems such as depression and substance abuse can be a tricky business in A-level psychology. A surprising number of young people have experience of such disorders often through family members and friends. The topic of eating disorders is especially poignant given that 15-19 year olds show the highest incidence of developing such disorders in the UK according to a 2013 study published in the British Medical Journal.
When tackling such socially sensitive subjects I always adopt a few general approaches.
Firstly, we agree as a class that all pupils have a voice and are welcome to air personal views without prejudice. It is always fascinating to hear pupils' views about ‘fat’ or ‘anorexic’ people and this is a great way to discuss how our own views are shaped by our environment. It is interesting to hear how Anorexia Nervosa is considered to be a mental problem that needs support where as those who overeat just need to diet and ‘sort themselves out’. The role of culture, class and socio-economic background always leads to animated discussion. We also agree that discussions are to be considered confidential, stories to be left anonymous and if anyone feels uncomfortable they need to know who they can talk to about these issues in and outside of the school.
I always ask my pupils to consider what they know about issues such as Anorexia and also how they know it. We dissect ‘teen’ magazines, newspapers and television adverts and try to discuss the topic in a language that they feel comfortable with. That said as they develop as psychology students they start to avoid colloquial expressions such as ‘mad’, ‘schizo’ and ‘mental’ that seem to appear with alarming regularity in everyday discussion among young and old.
We try to put ourselves into the shoes of sufferers by considering the content of pro-anorexia websites and using mirrors from the physics department to discuss body dysmorphia. By role-playing mock treatments we try to understand how different therapies might help to alter what individuals believe and what we think about ourselves.
However, we also never lose sight of the facts and figures about such diseases. Some disorders seem bizarre and interesting but others simply disturbing. The pupils never fail to be shocked about the increasing number of males who suffer from eating disorders and the fact that Anorexia Nervosa is generally quoted as having the highest death rate of any psychological disorder. Many young people are unsurprisingly naive about the impact mental health issues may have on them indirectly or otherwise at some point in their lives.
It is always fascinating to teach such an intrinsically interesting topic, I just hope that as well as being well prepared for their exams our pupils start to be able to better understand some of the complexities of our mental health and the causes of psychological disorders. Perhaps one day the stigma and misunderstanding of mental health problems that we still experience today will be a thing of the past.
Mike Lamb teaches biology and psychology at Hurstpierpoint College, Sussex.