They called me mad

29th January 2013 at 16:49

Tom Bennett

Every week Tom Bennett will be shouting at the laptop about some damn fool idea in education, or else he'll be writing about classrooms, students, or why teaching is the most important job in the world. This week Tom debates the insanity and tragedy behind mental health in school.

We gaze right through mental illness in schools, as we often do everywhere else. This is odd, because any statistic you read reveals that mental illnesses appear to be more common than skin. In a school of any size you'll have issues. I've encountered schizophrenia, depression, mania, obsessions and phobias of every complexion. Despair, isolation and loneliness come in many disguise, there's an ocean of all three barely buried beneath the surface of the rolling foam of the class.

The danger of over-diagnosis

Simultaneously, there's a perverse problem of over-diagnosis in other areas. We have medicalised perfectly normal-spectrum behaviours as being aberrant and pathological. We have invented an ontology of maladies mental as fabulous as the contents of any medieval bestiary. Instead of unicorns and basilisks, we have ADHD, anger management problems, and a million invisible elfs that are conjured and stapled to children. I have no problem with identifying patterns of behaviour to say, `this child is routinely angry,' for example, in an attempt to manage it. The legerdemain occurs once we have named that bundle of symptoms, because it's easy for it then to assume a life of its own. Once named, it exists as an entity, separate from its host. Then something even more magical happens. We disassociate it from the person, and say, `They can't help themselves: they have X.'

Disaster ensues. A child with an individual education plan that says `has anger management issues - please allow him to express himself' then erupts as he wishes in the classroom. He learns he can do as he pleases without consequence. And the class learn that you can blow your stack and get a biscuit. And the teacher learns that hell is a place on earth.

What happens to the notion of free will?

Caution, however: there are many involuntary behaviours that have clear explanatory mechanisms; that can reasonably be said to be beyond the control of the child: Tourette's for example, or various stages of autism. But they are far, far from the position of vague, notional infirmities that rob the client of will and autonomy. You see I believe in free will; I believe that the vast majority of us have a choice, the vast majority of the time. Even kids labelled with ADHD will often - amazingly - amend their behaviour in the presence of a teacher whom they respect. When that happens I call it `not really a condition'. I call it `character', which is a notion we often ignore in our race to explain away every dot and cog of the human condition.

Materialism is desperately fashionable. MRI scans, neuroscience, monism and the triumph of the scientific method seem to hopelessly circumscribe every physical event within the Kismet of universal causation. But we have barely begun to understand the mind, the rails upon which it might run, and the synthesis of sorcery and algebra that fuels the impossible. It is far too early to start commissioning the coffin of free will by dismantling every human desire and ambition into toy parts as banal and lifeless as Lego.

Worse, the project of doing so, once begun, robs us of the ability to choose, which in turn robs us of both responsibility and rationality. And, reduced to wet clockwork robots, it robs us finally of our dignity, and the annihilation of what we mean when we say `human'. Every crime becomes as worthy as any act of merit. No one is to blame, and nothing we do is worth anything.

Which is the real madness. Until proven otherwise, I choose to believe that my children are responsible for the vast majority of their actions, and as such, must bear the burden of praise and blame in proportion to their actions. Which means that they have the responsibility to change their actions, and eventually, their character.

Which makes them mighty.

Read Tom's previous blogs;


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