Trying to make it better

5th January 1996 at 00:00
Carey Newsom reports on a project designed to break down taboos surrounding mental health.

In the classroom of an Oldham comprehensive, a pupil has a notice pinned to her back informing the rest of the class: "I'm stupid." It's not a return to Dickensian teaching methods, but an exercise to show how a negative label can affect the way you are treated. Other students are wearing similar labels but can only guess what they say from the reactions of their classmates.

A group of adult volunteers, all of whom have experience of mental illness and the related stigma, either first hand or as carers, are quick to agree with the message behind the game. Later in the session, a woman describes the impact of having her son labelled as a schizophrenic.

Stress and therapy are buzz words of the Nineties yet most people still think of mental illness as something which happens to someone else.

But the Mental Health Foundation says that one in four adults and one in five children seen by GPs will have some form of mental health or emotional difficulty in the course of a year.

Mark Beddow, the mental health worker who co-ordinated the Breeze Hill School project, says the stigma prevents many people from seeking help. In nine weekly sessions, run by himself and a teacher at the school, pupils are offered strategies for coping with stress and encouraged to talk about their problems.

The fifteen 15 to 16-year-olds taking part have been identified as vulnerable because of exam pressure and expectations. The course includes exercises on assertiveness and stress, and is fitted into the curriculum as part of a City and Guilds diploma in vocational education.

The six adult volunteers from The Hollies, a local mental health resource centre, listen to pupils and contribute insights from their personal experience. Preconceptions are rapidly shed.

One 15-year-old comments: "I thought they were just going to be people who were depressed and stressed out. But they were friendly, helpful, caring and understanding."

Mark, who works for Oldham social services, says the idea originated with users of mental health facilities who could see the value of preventive work within education. "As young people, most had felt quite disempowered and had little opportunity to talk about their problems."

Breeze Hill has had its own experience of negative labelling. Earlier this year, the comprehensive of 900 pupils in a disadvantaged part of Oldham, was branded a "failing school" after an OFSTED inspection found unsatisfactory achievement, poor attendance and a high number of exclusions.

The conclusions were hotly contested by the school which said the report failed to reflect improvements in exam results and attendance.

Headteacher Bernard Phillips sees the project as a good way of addressing equal opportunities in a multicultural setting. In a school which is 60 per cent Asian, it would be all too easy to emphasise race issues all the time, he says.

"I think what we've done here is an example of the many and varied educational achievements that can happen in a school. You can't always measure educational provision by GCSE results. For these children what they went through has been a very valuable part of their education for life, but it won't help our league table position."

Before bringing volunteers into the school, Mark had several meetings with teaching staff. One concern was that sessions might allow students to raise issues which could not be readily resolved.

They were offered further help if they wanted it, but it was also made clear that if anyone disclosed an issue which constituted a danger to a young person, action would have to be taken. As a safety procedure, all volunteers, including sufferers from depression and alcoholics, were asked to submit to police checks.

In one session, Daniel, aged 34, told students about his experience of coming off drink and anti-depressants. "I wasn't trying to warn them," he says. "You can't say don't start drinking or taking drugs - they have to learn that. But you can tell them what damage it does to your family and how it leaves you feeling suicidal."

Despite the self-revelatory nature of some classes, volunteers were determined to present a positive image of themselves.

Discussions raised a host of troubling issues. Students described problems with bullying, racial attacks and family relationships. Some, from white European backgrounds, expressed their anguish that, when someone close to them had died, they had been excluded from the family's grief. Parents supported one another but failed to acknowledge their children's distress. Pupils from Asian families had a far more positive experience of grief.

Pat Perciuch, the course teacher, was taken aback to discover how much stress some children deal with. "It's amazing that some of them do as well as they do," she says, adding that the project reinforced the idea that schools can be havens of security and steadiness.

The work culminated with the students designing a series of four posters to raise awareness of the stresses on young people. The difficult topic of abuse is introduced with the caption "not all relationships are happy". The accompanying family portrait could be any family, yet with one child placed firmly in the background it seems to tell its own story. All four posters urge children to find someone trustworthy to talk to.

Sixteen-year-old Anne-Marie, who took part in the project, says it's advice she has taken to heart.

"If I was feeling down I'd tell someone close. If things started to get worse, I'd seek help. It doesn't have to be face-to-face. You can talk to a counsellor or go to a centre. Before I would've just locked myself in a room and turned the music on and taken it out on my mum and dad."

Posters produced with support from North West Arts Board are available free from Chris Love, West Pennine Health Promotion Unit, Westhulme Hospital, Oldham OL1 2PL. Please send three first class stamps for postage and packing.

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