SEND Focus: 'Mental health is still taboo in schools'

16th August 2016 at 12:02
We should stop looking for someone to blame for the current mental health crisis and instead focus on breaking down taboos, says one headteacher

Mental health is hard to talk about. Despite numerous campaigns and celebrity spokespeople bringing awareness to the topic, few teachers would feel confident speaking to their pupils about mental health.

But it will take more than an inset twilight session to help teachers overcome their uncertainty and to tackle the mental health crisis in our schools.

We can be philosophical about the causes and we can blame changes in lifestyles over the last 50 years, but culpability won’t make the crisis disappear. Instead, we must look at the fact that mental health is still taboo.

When I was a young person, a teacher repeatedly made crude jokes about my mental health that shamed me into not seeking help until I was well into adulthood and had suffered a serious crisis. That teacher was right in her diagnosis; yet both she and the school failed to support me. Why? Perhaps they were not equipped with the skills.

Difficult conversations

Today, teachers are more aware than they were when I was at school, but they still do not always have access to the resources they need to support children with mental health conditions. Too often, the focus is on finding someone or something to blame: poor parenting, diet, lifestyle and technology all come under fire as possible causes of mental health conditions.

Therefore, help is often only sought when a child, like a student of mine called Rachel (not her real name), hits crisis point. At the age of 11, Rachel has begun a cycle of self-harming. Professionals initially shied away from having that first difficult conversation with her for fear of getting it wrong. It was more challenging for her separated parents to seek diagnosis because of their guilt, their own misperception of mental health issues and the fear of long-term stigmatization. The palpable dread of limited social acceptance of an unseen illness was all too real.

Proactive steps

In my experience, help provided by child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHs) is limited and a drug regime isn’t always the solution. Meanwhile, talking therapies are difficult to access.

At our school, we offer emotional literacy support assistants (ELSAs), but this only meets the needs of a limited number of pupils. We have looked at non-drug interventions, such as changing the lights to bright LED lamps that produce the same light frequency as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) lamps.

These are all proactive steps, but nothing will stop the rise of mental health issues in schools until mental illnesses are treated by society with the same human warmth as physical illnesses.  Until then, an inset twilight session might be the best we can offer.

Jeremy Thompson is a headteacher of an urban primary school in South Wales.

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