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Troubled pupil let down by system

Schools need a policy for dealing with vulnerable children, health conference told. Ian Cameron reports

An emotionally-disturbed teenager who slashed her arms in a desperate plea for help faced the further ordeal of repeating her problems to six different people.

Teachers at a conference on children's mental health and psychological well-being were told she was let down because her school did not have a coherent policy for dealing with her situation.

The 14-year-old north Wales pupil's plight was highlighted at the conference in Cwmbran last week, attended by 130 delegates, most of them teachers in Welsh schools.

Mental health expert Louise Carpenter said: "The girl was found with lacerated arms but there was a further ordeal to come.

"Because the school in question did not have a firm policy in place to deal with her problems, she was repeatedly asked to tell her troubles to a variety of people - her PE teacher, year tutor, pastoral head, headteacher, the school nurse and, finally, a community paediatrician.

"It was a case of well-intentioned teachers flapping in the dark and heightening the girl's anxiety. If proper procedures had been in place this would never have happened, and the girl hopefully would have been dealt with quickly and expertly."

Mrs Carpenter, a senior children's mental health specialist with North-East Wales NHS Trust, said the girl was finally referred to mental health services. She has made a full recovery and is now back at school.

Mrs Carpenter said that recognising children's emotional problems should be made a part of teacher training, and that schools needed proper systems in place to deal with the increase in youngsters harming themselves - and even contemplating suicide.

"More and more young people are self-harming, with about one in five youngsters at any one time thinking of suicide.

"Teachers are in such a key position but they are lacking in the skills needed to cope with problem children."

Self-harm was just one of a number of problems said to be regularly facing Welsh teachers, at the conference organised by the NSPCC and Glamorgan university's Welsh institute for health and social care.

Others included how to communicate with pupils suffering from attention deficient hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and bullying in schools (see story, right).

Swansea child psychiatrist Dr Gill Salmon told the conference that children with ADHD "create havoc, are always on the go, never finish a project, cannot sit still and cannot concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time".

Mental health worker Nigel Mason, a colleague of Dr Salmon's at Swansea's Trehafod child and family clinic, said teachers should resist ordering ADHD children to stop doing certain tasks and instead give them a choice - to make them feel they were making the decision.

"Pupils suffering from ADHD have differing problems and teachers need to understand that. For instance, don't ask them to try to accomplish tasks they are incapable of doing, and always stay calm without engaging in slanging matches."

ADHD: spotting the signs

* not listening to the teacher;

* making careless mistakes;

* forgetful in daily activities;

* often loses important items;

* blurting out answers before questions are completed;

* talks excessively;

* interrupts or takes over conversations;

* fidgets on seats;

* runs about or climbs objects excessively.

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