Where did the kamikaze singer go?

22nd February 2008 at 00:00

Graham was really going for it. Until then I had never really seen anyone drink with such avidity, such determination that they were going to get out of their skull in the shortest time possible.

He had arrived at the end-of-term party clutching every wino's dream: a container - to be honest it was more of a vat - full of industrial strength cider. Then he had sat down on his own and begun to demolish it.

This was back in the days before alcohol became a practical no-no on college premises, and the students - all adults - were told they could bring a little of what they fancied if they liked. In most cases this was a can or two of lager, or a bottle of whatever plonk was on offer at the supermarket. But not in Graham's.

When the vat was two-thirds empty, he came out of his "loner" phase and wanted to join in with everyone else. What he particularly wanted to do was sing. Sadly, once he started it was more like kamikaze than karaoke. At first a few people laughed, but then suddenly no one thought it was funny any more. Exit Graham, stage left, propped up on either side by long-suffering classmates.

Graham would have been an ideal candidate for the college mental health nurse featured recently in FE Focus. Not that she would have had much chance of success in his case. He was already receiving treatment at the time of his party performance. In fact, I discovered later that he should have been at his Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that very evening.

Most colleges employ counsellors of one kind or another. But the appointment of mental health co-ordinator Elaine Boswell - known endearingly to students at Loughborough College in Leicestershire as "the mental lady" - acknowledges up front what college teachers have known for a long time: students are as likely to suffer from mental health problems as anyone else. In fact, they are more likely.

Adolescents are at that tricky point in their life where childhood has gone but adulthood has not yet started in earnest. I've heard it called seventeen-itis - and suffered from it myself when I passed through that unenviable age.

The college's other customers - the adults - are often having their second, third or fourth go at qualifications that their contemporaries passed long ago at school. Sometimes there are reasons for this other than simple academic ones. Scratch the surface - often they will surface without any scratching being required - and you find the full panoply of mental health conditions beneath. These can range from simple fear of failure (except, of course, the curing of it never does turn out to be simple!) right the way through to extreme psychosis.

Graham's downfall, the demon drink, is not uncommon. And if not drink, then there is a range of other drugs of choice which have ravaged the lives of some students. When they come to college they have usually come off the substances, and their studies are part of their rehabilitation programme.

As teachers and tutors we sometimes cannot avoid the manifestations of these conditions. How much we want to be involved in ameliorating them is another matter.

Some tutors start dialling the counsellor's number as soon as an emotion appears, let alone an addiction. At the other end of the scale come those who will clutch the sufferers to their metaphorical bosoms, providing tea, sympathy and sometimes even money in liberal helpings.

Personally, I have always aimed to tread the path that lies somewhere between these extremes. It is what you might describe as cautious engagement: being prepared to listen, but knowing when the point has come to refer the problem on.

When Graham returned to class on the first Monday after the holiday, I tried to cautiously engage with him. We had a series of long and meaningful conversations about his "problems". In the end, though, there was nothing that I - or he at that stage - could do to resolve them.

When the course ended, Graham had long gone. And all I could record against his name on the class progression list was: destination unknown.

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