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Call to act on mental health

A disturbing picture of buttoned-up teenagers unwilling to share their problems and feelings emerges from a survey in Renfrewshire published this week.

Renfrewshire Association for Mental Health has polled secondary pupils in the county for the fourth consecutive year and says the results reinforce the urgent need for schools to undertake preventative work on mental health.

Meanwhile another gloomy message will emerge shortly from a Scottish Office policy review of school health services in schools. The review concludes that these "may be failing to meet the needs of the school pupil of today, whose problems may be more likely to be emotional, social or behavioural in nature".

The Renfrewshire survey canvassed the views of 317 boys and 300 girls aged 15-17 in 10 secondary schools last session. While heartening evidence emerged of a greater willingness among boys to talk to their fathers, "one clear and disturbing fact is that 45 per cent of girls and 48 per cent of boys would not talk about feeling very anxious, very depressed, nor would talk about what could be the beginning of schizophrenia".

The association observes that the figure for girls is "surprisingly high" and believes isolation is due to a fear of being seen as different or weak. Most young people would talk to their best friend or their mother but only 3 per cent of boys and 0.8 per cent of girls would turn to their guidance teacher.

The survey found that girls choose sociable solutions when feeling low, such as seeing friends. Boys opt for solitary solutions, such as watching a video or listening to music. Girls eat when they are depressed, while boys drink.

Despite pupils' reluctance to confide in their teachers, the association believes it is vital for schools to take mental health problems more seriously. Peter Grafton, the association's education co-ordinator, says: "We must and can change the fear that surrounds mental illness and most people would agree education is the way forward."

Compulsory lessons in mental health are ruled out but Mr Grafton suggests that schools must seek to involve the expertise of guidance staff and use personal and social education as a vehicle for raising issues with children.

When the first Renfrewshire survey was carried out in 1992, there were only two comparable developments, in Manchester and Northern Ireland. Now school programmes are being developed in Inverclyde and in Glasgow. The association has received Pounds 143,000 from the National Lottery Charities Board, which will be used to follow up the results of the survey.

* Fife is to make permanent a pilot project for young mothers which has seen more of them successfully continue with their education. Last session 23 sat Standard grade or Higher exams. Seven have gone on to further or higher education.

Last year there were 49 girls being cared for compared with 30 in 1993. The project co-ordinator's post, which up to now has been filled by a seconded teacher, will be moved from Dunfermline to the Auchterderran resource centre near Lochgelly.

Fife has recently had among the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Scotland. In 1994 there were 70 conceptions and 15 live births among girls aged between 13-15.

James Macgregor, education support services manager, said: "The girls feel that they can stay on at school whereas previously they couldn't. That is maybe because of an attitudinal change on the part of staff, parents and other children."

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