Teachers asked to turn psychiatrist

Teachers are at least as good as GPs at diagnosing depression in children, but training can improve their ability, a pilot study by Edinburgh Healthcare Trust's Young People's Unit has found. In the study, they correctly identified depressive illness in 50 per cent of the cases presented to them.

The results were presented in Edinburgh at the annual meeting of the child and adolescent faculty of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. The Young People's Unit has devised a two-hour training programme which has so far been used by teachers in four schools.

Stephanie Moor, a member of the unit, said that in one school testing before and after the programme showed "significant improvement" in the rate at which teachers picked up on depression. The programme consists of an explanation of depressive illness and its symptoms followed by workshop activities in which teachers assess typical scenarios involving depressed pupils.

Increased problems of concentration, difficulties with peers, falling behind with school work and weight loss are symptoms, as are untoward behaviour by boys (in whom depression is harder to detect than girls), storming out of class or not turning up when and where they should, Dr Moor said.

"Teachers can watch pupils' behaviours and relationships and know the area they live in and their families. That gives them a wide data base. They have the video, we get the snapshot."

Once depression is spotted, the pupil could be encouraged to talk to a guidance teacher, school doctor or GP. But Dr Moor said: "It is a very sensitive issue how schools can take things forward."

* The conference heard that a school-based eating disorder prevention programme involving 45-minute discussion sessions on peer pressure, self-esteem and body image given to 471 adolescent girls by staff at Warneford Hospital in Oxford resulted in only short-term reduction in self-imposed "dietary restraints". Researchers advised that booster sessions were vital.

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