Cries for help go unheard

14th April 2006 at 01:00
Secondaries are driven by exam and administrative systems that prevent teachers from picking up warning signs of distress in pupils, concludes a series of meetings on mental health between teachers, other professionals and students in Aberdeen, David Henderson writes.

Twenty-two S3 pupils from Hazlehead and St Machar academies told researchers from Aberdeen University that teachers often failed to notice changes in students' appearance, behaviour or attitude to learning that indicated underlying problems.

National figures suggest that 8.5 per cent of young people have some mental health disorder, with boys more likely to suffer than girls. Children of lone parents are twice as likely to have problems as those living with married or cohabiting couples.

The main problems are emotional disorders such as anxiety, depression and obsessions; hyperactivity disorders involving inattention and over-activity; and conduct disorders such as awkward or antisocial behaviour.

Some of the Aberdeen group felt they were "crying out for help" - often expressed through aggressive or disruptive behaviour, rather than sadness or depression - but that adults misinterpreted the signs. Both parents and school staff found it difficult to find an appropriate balance between "protecting" and "letting go", the young people said.

The researchers state: "This reflects to a large degree society's ambivalent attitudes towards adolescence, on the one hand 'demonising' and seeking to 'control' this age group, and on the other hand having high expectations of premature maturity, scholastic achievement and responsible behaviour on the part of young people."

School dominated the series of discussions, especially exams and the pressure they cause. "It's never good enough," said one student. "Always being assessed," said another. Schools did not realise how overwhelming exams were and therefore offered little space or respite in the school day.

Parents also failed to appreciate the stress and often added to it at home.

"Parents should go to school for a month to know what it's like," one pupil said.

Young people told researchers that they needed help with time management during the build-up to exams and would prefer study leave in S3. Juggling revision, home, work and hobbies left little time for relaxation.

Many felt they would not go to teachers if they had difficulties. "Your guidance teacher is like your mum or dad - you can't question them," said one. Another said: "I would not speak to a teacher at school - confidentiality is a big issue."

Others said: "Guidance have too many people to see. They can make too much of things - refer to professionals"; "Bad comments about school are not welcomed".

Third-year students did not take to personal and social education. As one observed: "Teachers are embarrassed about talking about relationships - maybe professionals from outside should do it."

They want a radical change in the PSE curriculum and a focus on relationships, not the mechanics of sex. Outside experts should be brought in to talk about sexually transmitted diseases, Aids and condoms.

Norma Hart, who is senior lecturer in education at Aberdeen University, commented: "When we asked the young people to focus on feelings, the range of both positive and negative feelings surrounding, for example, family relationships and peer pressure, was staggering.

"We were reminded of the huge range of emotions that characterise the teenage years."

Making a Fuss: Recognising and Responding to the Mental Health Needs of Young People. Available from

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