Prick up your ears

10th September 2004 at 01:00
The calming effects of acupuncture are working wonders for pupils with severe behavioural and emotional problems. Omega Douglas reports

Imagine you are lying in a cornfield. You can see windmills, grazing cows and a blue sky. The sun is shining and you're under an oak tree in the shade, taking everything in..."

These are not the words of some spiritual guru trying to de-stress tense urbanites. This is Sean Regan, a 15-year-old boy in scuffed trainers, with baggy tracksuit, close-shaven hair, and five needles protruding from each of his ears. And he's talking about "visualising".

Sean is sitting, legs up on a chair, in a bright room at Starhurst, a state secondary boarding school for 50 boys in Dorking, Surrey. Three other teenagers sprawl around him, all with needles stuck in their ears, hugging pillows and duvets in case they drift off. The scent of sandalwood fills the air, relaxing music plays softly and the boys close their eyes. It is hard to believe that five minutes ago these teenagers were chatting and fidgeting. The serene atmosphere makes it harder still to believe they are at Starhurst because they have such severe behavioural and emotional difficulties that they have been excluded from mainstream schools.

Starhurst is their last hope of getting an education or, as head Henry Kiernan prefers to put it, "their best opportunity".

Providing opportunities to help pupils deal with a range of behavioural issues is at the centre of Starhurst's ethos. "We have youngsters with complex disorders, but we're limited in terms of what the national curriculum offers us to meet their needs," says Mr Kiernan. "So we have broadened our delivery of it by offering a range of interventions - from creative arts to group therapy - to help them succeed academically and emotionally."

This is where the acupuncture comes in. Over the past few years, staff watched pupils' behaviour deteriorate as drug abuse grew. So when the Surrey Young People's Service (SYPS), a treatment organisation for under-19s with substance abuse problems, opened in the area last year, the school hoped it would help find a solution. Following a series of meetings between Mr Kiernan, the local authority, governors, staff, parents and pupils, it was agreed that SYPS could run an innovative therapy programme using auricular acupuncture (which focuses on specific sites on the ear), creative visualisation and aromatherapy.

They decided to carry out a six-week pilot that would expand if pupils' drug use diminished and behaviour improved. "Although it's never been used on children experiencing these difficulties before, a recent study in the United States suggested auricular acupuncture can be an effective treatment for youngsters with special needs," says Stuart Fraser, a SYPS senior therapist.

"It has also been used successfully for treating adult stimulant users who have the same behavioural traits as these kids - bouncing off walls, low attention span, poor sleep patterns - so I was confident that, combined with the calming effects of aromatherapy and visualisation, it would work in this setting."

In October last year, a group of six boys began having treatment twice a week for 45 minutes. There was no scientific approach to deciding who took part; six was deemed a manageable number and then, as Celia Clack, a link teacher who helped organise the study, says: "It was mostly a case of who gave in their parental consent forms first."

It was agreed that Ms Clack would sit in on sessions and conduct informal interviews with the pupils, and Mr Kiernan would carry out formal interviews with the boys after the six weeks so they could get an objective, if anecdotal, idea of how useful it had been.

But things went less smoothly than planned. "In the first session, boys were laughing at people who had pins in, and weren't paying attention," says Billy Moore, 16. He was excited about the sessions because he thought it might help him cut down on smoking and stop him getting stressed about his GCSE coursework. "I didn't feel different after that first session because I wasn't concentrating."

The next couple of sessions were unsettled too, with mobiles ringing and arguments about who would have the needles in first. Annoyed that their chance to give the treatment a go was being disrupted, some of the boys decided to make rules and that "whoever broke them would get chucked out", says Billy. When the A4 sheet with "No talking, no phones, no fidgeting, no arguing" scrawled in black marker was pinned to a wall in the treatment room, attitudes changed.

"I felt brilliant afterwards, really relaxed," says David Harris, 15. "I slept better and stopped smoking so much."

"Yeah," Billy chips in. "I felt more chilled - even my mum said I was - and I could concentrate in class."

Ms Clack says staff began to notice changes too. If, for instance, there was an argument, it was always a pupil from the acupuncture group who intervened and helped sort it out calmly. "It was excitingI these were young people who couldn't talk things through, who'd fly off the handle, and now they were being open with each other and expressing problems verbally instead of fighting. Also, for them to sit still for 45 minutes was amazing. They learned stillness."

Jenny Larsson, an executive board member of the British Complementary Medicine Association, is not surprised. "These therapies can improve mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing so it's encouraging to hear that these types of trials, which will enhance public awareness, are taking place."

Other pupils soon began asking if they could have acupuncture. Even the teachers gave up a Friday afternoon to experience a session. It was having such an impact that Mr Kiernan asked Mr Fraser to continue taking weekly sessions after the pilot was over - and decided to fund three teachers, including Ms Clack, to be trained in auricular acupuncture. Come autumn, all three should have completed a two-day course run by the National Acupuncture Detox Association and be ready, under Mr Fraser's supervision, to take sessions.

Two days? The British Society of Auricular Acupuncturists claims it's long enough as the teachers are trained to treat just five points on the ear - all linked to detox. And, unlike full body acupuncture, it's a non-diagnostic treatment. The teachers must also complete at least 50 supervised treatments before they can be passed as competent to practise.

The programme was presented to the Home Office last month as part of a three-year inquiry commissioned by the Drugs Strategy Directorate into good practice in young people's services. SYPS is now hoping to secure funding for a clinical trial. "We're not saying acupuncture is a panacea," says Stuart Fraser, "but we are seeing encouraging results in young people with complex needs, so it's definitely worth pursuing."

Names of pupils have been changedFor more information about SYPS, tel: 01737 773 482. The auricular acupuncture used by SYPS is based on the five-point treatment taught by NADA UK:

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