Somewhere to ease a troubled mind

6th January 1995 at 00:00
Susan Young visits a school which offers a unique drop-in centre where children can unburden themselves. It's 3.15 on Friday afternoon when two groups of small girls approach Camila Batmanghelidjh in the corridor of a south London primary school.

A beaming gang of three, tugging at her sleeve, present her with a cartoon book they've drawn specially, telling the adventures of the Princess Camila - who being tall and blonde bears little resemblance to her namesake.

The two other little girls hang back. Only when Camila has finished praising the others' work do they come forward, and shyly explain that they want to come to A Place To Be.

"Do you need to talk to someone about something which is worrying you, or do you want to play?" asks Camila. They want to talk. Can it wait until after Christmas? They agree that it can, but Camila is so concerned about the apparent deep depression one is suffering that she is determined to make arrangements for her as soon as possible.

"Most of our business happens in corridors. Children will come up to us and ask if they can talk to someone," explains Camila, the driving force behind the scheme which provides therapy in school for primary children.

Camila, a psychotherapist, founded A Place To Be almost two years ago after being called in to help a seven-year-old girl whose frequent suicide attempts had included trying to hang herself from her bunkbed, suffocate herself with her reading folder and throw herself in the road. Her mother would have been unable to take her to therapy, so Camila moved into her school, talked to her teachers and worked with her twice a week. Eventually the little girl was confident enough to talk about her problems and at nine is no longer trying to kill herself.

A Place To Be is unique because parents, teachers and the children themselves can refer troubled youngsters for help which is provided during the school day. "That is one of the biggest problems with child mental health: children under the age of 13 or 14 don't really have access to it and have to rely on an adult who has to notice their difficulties and take them to the local child guidance or whatever," said Camila.

No stigma is attached to children using the service - those who feel left out can just go to play for a session - and it has now spread into nine London schools, helping more than 850 primary-age children so far with 100 therapists involved.

Some have been abused, or are trying to cope with family problems or bullying. Often they will not talk directly about what is troubling them, but express themselves through drawing or drama.

Working directly with the children are trained and training counsellors, therapists and special educationists known as P2Bs, who use the project as part of their work experience and must commit themselves for at least a year. In return they get support, training and free supervision sessions twice a week with fully qualified senior psychotherapists. Camila herself is unpaid, and teaches during the evenings for a living, although a fund-raising drive is under way to underpin the scheme and set up an after-school drop-in centre.

It all began in Brunswick Park school in Southwark, where Camila, then working for the Family Service Unit, was called in to help one child and gradually outlined the idea she had been pondering for years. Headteacher Peter White, who has always refused to exclude difficult children, is enthusiastic about the scheme. He said: "There are children in school who needed someone to talk to but not the degree of support provided by the educational psychologist.

"It's incredible. The difference in the school is quite amazing. Brunswick has always been a calm and purposeful place but quite difficult children are calmer in the classroom, less aggressive in the playground and more willing to talk to the class teachers as well. It gives children the key to learning."

Others talk of the knock-on effects: if one intimidated child learns to stand up to bullies in class as a result of the sessions, other pupils are inspired to do the same. "It can change all the dynamics of a class," says one.

Former store cupboards and small rooms dotted around the Victorian school have been transformed into Place To Be therapy rooms, cheerfully decorated and equipped with toys and art materials.

Camila explains: "When we set up in schools we are in education and the whole school understands the importance of mental health and the ability to talk things over. Our children completely understand the concept and it is easy for them to self-refer because they are in school. Even a four-year-old comes up to us and says 'I have worries, I need to see someone at A Place To Be.' "I was so impressed last week when a child referred himself. He was nine years old, and he said he was bullying, didn't want to bully, but felt he couldn't stop and needed help. I thought it was incredible."

"I wouldn't want to say this counselling project is for children with difficulties. I want to say it's a way of integrating child mental health into the life of a child and stressing how important it is to be in touch with the way you are feeling."

David Keaton, education psychologist for Southwark, is impressed by the scheme, and has been told by class teachers how formerly shy and withdrawn children have been much more able to express themselves after A Place To Be.

One such child is Shakira, five, who refused to speak to anyone when she first arrived in the Brunswick infants' reception class and has spent the past year in a Place To Be group. The root cause, expressed in drawings, turned out to be a minor deformity. Now she's a chatty little girl happy to explain what she does in her group: "Sometimes I play, sometimes I mess about. Sometimes I shout at them."

None of the adults involved in A Place To Be believes that children are changing fundamentally but that their world now gives less help to deal with problems. David Keaton believes that children experience a high degree of stress in their daily lives, while Camila says parents are expending most of their energy on surviving and children in classes of 30 get little individual attention in school "What they really need is some quality time with an adult," says headteacher Peter White.

Television does not help, according to Camila: "The programmes have mechanical characters and no emotional exchanges. Kids don't have vocabulary to be able to name some of the things they are feeling." She adds: "What worries me is a kind of lethal coldness they get which doesn't allow them to feel anything. When you don't feel anything you can't imagine how it feels to get hurt yourself. " She recalled one lesson with a class of bullying seven-year-olds asked to pay compliments to each other. The first compliment took a long time coming, and admired the child's trainers rather than any personal attribute - as did those which followed.

No one is making any long-term claims for A Place To Be at present but they say the benefits are already palpable. Camila says: "The children have become much more confident, much more able to say what they need and feel. They feel valued that somebody really does come and see them twice a week and really does think about them and remember what they've said. It gives them a good experience. They can go out in the outside world and remember the person who showed people could talk to each other like that."

Peter White adds: "I can't imagine Brunswick without A Place To Be now. Parents depend on it, the staff depend on it, it's almost like part of the system."

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