Please mind your head

8th October 2004 at 01:00
Andrew Mourant hears how a new free resource is helping schools tackle issues of mental health in young people

Exploring Mental Health

Resources are free via the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

Tel: 0870 443 5252

BACP House, 35-37 Albert Street, Rugby, Warwickshire CV21 2SG

Badly behaved students are an inescapable fact of school life. But it takes time and trouble to look for the root cause of their disruptive behaviour.

Sometimes, it may just be devilment; but often it's something deeper.

Awareness and understanding of mental health is a component of personal, social and health education lessons, yet it's often overlooked and misunderstood, or confused with mental illness. It can be defined as the ability to experience emotions; cope with ups and downs; make friends and have a sense of identity.

In the US, an estimated 21 per cent of children aged nine to 17 may have a "diagnosable emotional or behavioural health disorder", according to the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). The association believes that UK levels could be as high as they are in the US.

The scale of the problem - and ignorance of it - last year spurred BACP to launch a website for teachers giving guidance on emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Now, as World Mental Health Day 2004 (October 10) approaches, Mark Prever, chair of the BACP's Counselling in Education division, has created a pioneering classroom resource for 14 to 16-year-olds. "It's taken many years to develop a coherent philosophy towards young people, their education and support," he says.

The result is an activity-based pack, Exploring Mental Health, that covers 13 themes - anything from stereotype and stigma to what may cause a problem. Many activities involve dividing a class into groups of four, and are based on discussions, speaking and listening, or writing down feelings and emotions.

However, Mark Prever, who has 30 years' teaching experience, is aware that some topics may stir up discomfiture. "When looking at mental illness, sensitivity is needed - it's especially important to recognise that some problems may affect a student directly or indirectly," he says. "Teachers should ensure they have a colleague with whom to share strong feelings if necessary."

The pack, which is intended to run over half a term, includes extension activities: students may be asked to monitor and record their emotions over a week; gather media material relating to mental health issues; or produce artwork or poetry.

Through BACP, the material has been sent to PSHE co-ordinators in every secondary school. "Feedback so far has been good," he said. "Some have asked for extra, or whether there's anything for younger people."

Mr Prever, who has long been involved in youth work and pastoral care, runs a student support centre, funded by Excellence in Cities, for children with social and emotional problems at Yardleys, a multi-racial school in Birmingham. The curriculum pack draws heavily on his experiences. His principle is to look beyond behaviour; to examine the lives of his students.

"Most centres in schools try to bring children back into conformity," he says. "This service is different." It aims to work long term and doesn't sign up to producing outcomes. "We get the families involved and I'll do home visits if needed."

The centre is used by 100 or so of Yardleys' 900 pupils. But in a world forever conducting assessment by ticked boxes, how is success judged?

Natalie Boughey, 15, vouches for the benefits. She's used the service since Year 8 - though her problems are less behavioural, more around missing school and falling behind through the burdens of home life.

Out of school, Natalie has to look after her two-year-old brother Harry while her mother works a late shift stretching from 4.30pm to 2.00am. There are also tensions with her older brother. All four live cheek-by-jowl in a small two bedroom house.

"I'd start doing homework at 11.30pm," Natalie says. "But I found homework and coursework getting on top of me and my confidence wasn't good."

Sometimes, it's still a struggle - she likes to keep weekends free for swimming and other activities. But, through the centre, the school has a complete picture. The main thing is that Natalie has kept going - she intends doing GCSEs and is set on a career in the police force.

Many use the centre voluntarily. Anger management, for which there's a strong demand, is dealt with in various ways: offering a sympathetic ear; a glass of cold water; playing a board game that tackles some of the issues.

No two lives are identical. Anger, for instance, may derive from racial abuse, or something deeper.

In the case of one student, it came from the death, as babies, of two siblings and a fierce desire to protect his surviving brother. "Mark's been to see my Mum loads at home," he says. "She really likes him."

Mr Prever's skill is to draw the sting and act as a sounding board. Some Yardleys students regard him as a teacher who shows them respect, who can help when other relationships have broken down. "Here we do anything that works," he says.

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