A safe environment is key when discussing mental health issues
Teaching teenagers about problems such as depression and substance abuse can be a tricky business. This is because a surprising number of young people have personal experience of such disorders, either because a friend or family member has suffered from one or they have themselves.
The topic of eating disorders is especially poignant, given that such problems are most likely to manifest in the 15-19 age bracket, according to a UK-based 2013 study published in medical journal BMJ.
When tackling such socially sensitive subjects in A-level psychology, therefore, I always set a few ground rules. First, we agree as a class that everyone should have a voice and is welcome to air their views without prejudice.
It is always fascinating to hear pupils' opinions of people who are "anorexic" or "fat". Anorexia nervosa, for example, is generally considered to be a psychological problem that needs support, whereas students often seem to believe that those who overeat just need to diet and "sort themselves out".
These arguments form a great basis for talking about how a person's beliefs are shaped by their environment. The role of culture, class and socio-economic background always leads to animated discussion.
Another of my ground rules is that what is revealed in class must be considered confidential and that stories should be left anonymous. If anyone feels uncomfortable, I make sure they know who they can talk to about these issues in and outside school.
I always ask my pupils to consider what they know about issues such as anorexia and how they know it. We dissect teen magazines, newspapers and television adverts in language they feel comfortable with. That said, as they develop as psychology students, they start to avoid colloquial expressions such as "schizo", "mad" and "mental".
We then try to put ourselves in the shoes of sufferers. We may, for example, consider the content of pro-anorexia websites or use mirrors from the physics department to discuss body dysmorphia. By role-playing treatments, we try to understand how different therapies might help to alter what individuals believe about themselves.
However, we never lose sight of the facts and figures about such diseases. Pupils are always shocked by the increasing numbers of boys and men who suffer from eating disorders, and by the fact that anorexia nervosa is generally quoted as having the highest mortality rate of any psychological disorder.
Unsurprisingly, many young people are naive about the impact that mental health issues may have on them at some point in their lives, indirectly or otherwise. It is always fascinating to teach such an intrinsically interesting topic.
I just hope that as well as being prepared for their exams, our students start to better understand some of the complexities of mental health and the causes of psychological disorders. Perhaps one day the stigma that is still experienced by those who suffer from mental health problems will become a thing of the past.
Mike Lamb is a biology and psychology teacher and a housemaster at Hurstpierpoint College in West Sussex
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