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Confidence deficit: why teachers say they don't spot pupils' mental illness

Psychological distress is left to fester until adulthood because staff aren't trained to help, survey finds

Psychological distress is left to fester until adulthood because staff aren't trained to help, survey finds

The majority of experienced teachers say they are not able to spot early signs of mental illness in their pupils due to lack of training, new research has found.

Even though an overwhelming majority of those surveyed acknowledged that this is a vital part of their job, they are unable to carry it out, according to researchers at Edge Hill University.

The British Medical Association reports that 20 per cent of children and teenagers experience a mental-health problem at some point. And problems such as depression and self-harm are on the increase.

However, in the majority of cases, these problems remain undetected until adulthood, leading to underachievement at school as well as drug abuse, violence and disease.

The Edge Hill researchers said: "Since school teachers see their pupils on a regular basis, they are seen as being ideally placed to spot early warning signs."

The academics questioned trainee and experienced teachers from ten secondaries in the Midlands and North West to determine how comfortable they felt identifying and dealing with early indications of psychological distress.

Half of the experienced teachers and almost two-thirds of the trainees agreed that it was important that they were able to detect mental illness among pupils. However, 57 per cent of experienced teachers and 49 per cent of trainees did not feel confident to do so.

In fact, 69 per cent of experienced teachers said that they had received no training in dealing with mental health problems.

Many respondents said they wanted mental health awareness to be included in teacher training. But two-thirds of the experienced interviewees also believed that refresher courses should be delivered throughout their careers.

Teachers at all stages of their careers also wanted to see school-based training sessions delivered to all members of teaching and non-teaching staff.

They also felt it was important to choose carefully what kind of language was used during training courses.

"Teachers are not comfortable using psychiatric terminology," the researchers said. "(They) are experts in learning and class management, so it is easier to talk about learning and behaviour problems than psychological problems."

They were also aware that there might be a stigma attached to mental illness, and were anxious not to attach detrimental labels to pupils. However, many of the interviewees felt that the opposite were actually true.

"Some disorders might actually be considered slightly fashionable at the moment," the researchers said.

They cited the example of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): "Some young people are happy to announce that they are 'a bit OCD' about something."

However, the new teachers in particular were anxious that teachers' job description should not include the duties of mental health worker.

Many felt that their job was in danger of becoming "over-extended", a prospect they found "scary".

They were also concerned that making a mistake or failing to spot a problem might lead to a witch-hunt in which blame would be unfairly allocated.

In addition, the teachers acknowledged that not all their colleagues were happy to deal with pastoral issues. "Some teachers think their role is solely to deliver subject knowledge," the researchers said.

"A consistent theme ... was that teachers wanted to be able to spot the signs, but see their main role as referral and not diagnosis."


Hearing voices

Left to a TA to deal with

A pupil with ADHD began having hallucinations and hearing voices. Few staff in the school were equipped to deal with this. There was a rigid behaviour policy, which caused problems when managing the pupil's outbursts. Ultimately, responsibility for the child was left to a teaching assistant.

Trainee 'in at deep end'

A trainee teacher had no knowledge of the extent of self-harming among pupils until he was forced to deal with a self-harming pupil. He had received child-protection training but had no knowledge of how to deal with mental health problems. He therefore felt "thrown in the deep end" and was surprised to find that there was support available in school, from the school nurse, a chaplain and the pastoral team.

'Odd' diagnosis caused delay

When a pupil developed depression, the initial symptoms were similar to ADHD. As a result, teachers did not recognise the problem: one responded aggressively; another described the boy as "odd". It was only after reporting the problem to the school special-needs co-ordinator that the teacher saw the need for swift professional intervention.

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