Prevention is the key

9th October 1998 at 01:00
TALKING ABOUT IT. An educational resource promoting mental health in schools. Meridian Broadcasting Pounds 7.50 or free if you collect

Adrian King reviews a package with a positive attitude to mental health

This pack is a courageous attempt to fill a gap in personal and social education resources. It consists of a video, a teacher's manual for secondary schools, a booklet, and a half-hour audio cassette with additional information on mental health.

Each of the seven bite-sized sections of the video is pithy and succinct, several of them featuring articulate, first-hand accounts by young people in circumstances which threaten mental stability. They deal with talking about feelings, depression, drama as a developmental vehicle, bereavement, young carers, bullying and self-esteem at school. A pity that this final part was set in a primary school when most of the pack's users will be secondaries.

The teacher's manual consists of distinct activities for staff and pupils. The treatment is accessible and clear, and the developmental exercises for young people relevant to growing teenagers and realistic for crowded timetables. The inclusion of thoughtful staff development exercises serves as a reminder that mental well-being is a sensitive social issue with significance for everyone.

The pack's emphasis is on the promotion of mental health rather than spotlighting mental illness, and its positive attitude to prevention through openness, better understanding and effective support is welcome in an area where stigma is still rife.

However, I was concerned to see "self-inflicted cutting" in a list of symptoms that "do not automatically" indicate a mental health problem. Such self-destructive behaviour is always an indicator of serious malaise. Of doubtful value, too, is the distinction suggested between mental health problems common to many at some time or other, and mental illness, which is rarer. Suicide can result from bullying as surely as from chronic depression, and any pupil under severe pressure needs appropriate intervention, whatever the cause.

A valuable inclusion is the checklist for teachers addressing personally sensitive material in class. The author reminds readers that when the climate is conducive to trust and honesty, and significant personal predicaments are explored, the possibility of a pupil's misery rising to the surface is real. The injunction to check that "nobody has been left in a state of distress or anxiety" is timely, perhaps even understated. There is a vital need to ensure appropriate help is available, which means having effective pastoral support mechanisms in place, thorough familiarity with the nature of local, external services, and knowing the difference between the educational psychologist, whose expertise is the assessment and modification of behaviour, and the psychiatrist, who deals with sickness.

Adrian King is former health education co-ordinator for Berkshire. World Mental Health Day is October 10. The Health Education authority (0171 413 1991) and MIND (0181 519 2122 ext 223) also produce teaching materials on mental health

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