I failed to understand

1st March 2013 at 00:00

I'm concerned about the state of our pupils' mental health. Over the past few years, the number of children tagged on my register as having "long-term underlying health problems" has been on the increase. Paradoxically, their poor mental health is often a reasonable reaction to the madness of their world, or as R.D.Laing puts it: "Insanity - a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world." But sadly we pay little attention to pupils' floundering emotional states. While we track their underperformance like a spaniel sniffing out cannabis, the smell of their abject misery tends to pass us by.

In comparison with today's teenagers, we had an easier time of it. We had no targets, we had no assessment focuses, and we didn't have our faces rubbed in our own progression like some incontinent puppy. Nor did we spend pointless hours "thinking about our thinking" because we were too busy thinking about having sex with the lad in front. And because there was no Big Brother monitoring our school performance, we could focus on the more important things in life - such as working out whether a Mars bar had more calories than semen and wondering if you could get pregnant standing up.

Our lives had more solidity: marriage, jobs and varicose veins were all permanent features. But the world our pupils inhabit is constantly shifting. Even our changing lexicon - with its "tipping points" and "fiscal cliffs" - reminds them that they are forever teetering on the edge of doom. Little wonder they are suffering from debilitating depression. In Death of a Salesman, before his suicide, Willy Loman describes feeling "kind of temporary" about himself. Imagine how "temporary" children must feel when their family life is broken and the only thing they can rely on is the constant state of flux. Even their support network - the ironically named "social" media - displays rampantly cruel antisocial tendencies. Dealing with emotional teenage stuff is hard enough, but when you are being unfriended, unfollowed and untagged at the same time it can send you over the edge. I recently watched my 16-year-old niece fall to pieces because her former boyfriend had removed all trace of her from his Facebook gallery. I know how invisible she feels. When I lost my BlackBerry last month, half of my life went with it. It's never been harder to hang on to your past, or retain your sense of self.

Last week, I organised an after-school detention for one of the pupils with so-called "underlying health problems" that I had lazily interpreted as a euphemism for poor attendance. He was way behind with coursework and I thought he was taking the piss. The detention was in a stuffy IT room that grew unbearably hot. He removed his blazer. I noticed a name tattooed on his forearm surrounded by some mawkish verse. "Who's the girlfriend?" I asked, pointing to the name "Louise" etched on to his skin. "No, that's so I remember my mother. She killed herself last year." Like the character in Memento, the boy's way of keeping track of the past was to score it into his flesh.

Later, I did some digging around and discovered that his "health issues" involved talking about suicide and medication for depression. The knowledge left me ashamed. When my pupils don't know how to "make good progress" I've failed them as a teacher. But when they don't want to carry on living, I'm failing them on every front.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England. @AnnethropeMs.

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