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Is ‘Mental Health’ The Biggest Challenge Facing Schools In 2016?

Happy talk, keep talkin’ happy talk,

Talk about things you’d like to do.

You got to have a dream,

If you don’t have a dream,

How you gonna have a dream come true?

(“Happy Talk” from South Pacific by Rogers and Hammerstein)

With a fifth of young people developing a mental health issue before the age of eleven, issues surrounding mental health are becoming one of the biggest challenges facing schools today.

We have all seen time-lapse photography on T.V. The growth and evolution from an acorn to the most spectacular oak tree.

The human brain starts from the same premise, but is far more complex. It feeds off 20% of our body’s oxygen, but is only 2% of our body mass. It collects experiences from pre-birth, and continues to do so as long as there is more and more laid out in front of it to absorb. Every experience we have is stored there. Sometimes we are clearly aware of these things; walking, talking, writing. But we also store our experiences with their associated emotions: seeing a blue sky, watching snow fall, laughing, crying. All this gathering and collecting of information is the very thing which creates our nature, develops us as individuals, and instructs us on how we manage everyday life.

I remember a cartoon called The Numskulls in The Beezer comic, and from that point on, I always imagined I had ‘people’ in my head organising everything, as it was far too complex for me to do on my own. The idea of people in casual clothing and slippers sitting in armchairs until they are needed seems comforting to me. My daughter recently bought me a film called ‘Inside Out’, where the same principle was being used.  We are so complex that it is comforting to imagine that not everything in life has to have us think about it in detail to make it happen.

However, things do go wrong, and whilst many of us can sort out our emotional problems, some people can’t. Some people need help.

‘Inside Out’ illustrates for me why the work I do in helping families unravel their problems is so important.

The old adage ‘a trouble shared is a trouble halved’ is very true. We cannot all manage the millions of experiences we have without something going wrong. We all manage experiences in different ways. We make a judgement on what we see in people’s lives: Why do people continue to drink and drive? Why do young people get into trouble, in their families, in our schools, in the community?

We formulate an opinion from our experiences. But until we can look into these people’s minds and see the store cupboard of emotions and experiences that they draw upon, how can we begin to understand why a person does the things that they do?

We now have a well-formulated understanding of how the brain functions. We don’t know everything, but we know enough to be able to explain many of the actions and decisions we make. We know that we are affected by everything we have ever experienced. If a child experiences pre-birth trauma from listening to horrific arguments, should we be surprised if they then cannot function?

This may not excuse the action that is carried out by the troubled child, but it can explain why they are the school bully, the attention-seeking individual, or the class clown..

We now look at mental health in a de-stigmatised fashion, and know that there is a spectrum mental health. 

There are conditions that label us as having ADHD, Asperger’s, Autism, Bipolarity, Psychosis. It is a minefield for them and those living and working amongst people who suffer from these conditions. 

I have attended training courses which refer to a windscreen or protractor visual where all our mental health, positive or negative, sits. To my mind, this image is simply the Autistic Spectrum, and we all have some of this; it is just a matter of how much we have as to whether we can or cannot manage from day to day.

Many of us use elements of OCD to survive in life – putting the left sock on before the right, or having the volume set to an even number. We may have our quirks, but we manage and get on with life and find it relatively easy to organise. To others, it becomes the reason they cannot get out of bed, get dressed, or even leave the house.

Routines are a vital part of our lives. We sleep, get up, wash, clean our teeth, get dressed, have breakfast. The routine of school life can be very reassuring to those who cannot manage at home. They develop a love of the routine of school, where they do not have to think about what comes next and they are so busy that they have to concentrate on the moment. After a day of effort to ’fit in’, though, they may get home to an unstructured and disorganised environment, and explode.

Family issues have a direct impact on the child, the classroom, and the whole school community. Mental health, drug use, alcohol use, and domestic abuse all impact on the young children living with them. If we are able to address some of these at their onset – their roots –then maybe we can help to support change.

My belief is that we need to tackle the root of the problem, as it is the only way to be effective.

My husband is an artist, and I often illustrate my beliefs by using a part of one of his paintings bordered by cogs. These cogs are all differing sizes. So, no matter how large or small or slightly misshapen, if one is removed, the smooth running of that mechanism is drawn to a halt. We are made of these valuable cogs; if one of them comes loose, we can no longer function.

I am not the guru of all things that are right. This is my method combined with my experience of working in education with primary and secondary schools, of managing a counselling charity, of working as a Therapeutic Mentor, and from absorbing various training courses.

I am often asked to come into schools to discuss a family whose child is angry, violent, upset, has attendance problems, or is frequently late for school. These are usually the problems on the surface, and many other things are uncovered as my involvement progresses.

There are two ways of seeing a ‘problem child’: as a disruptive member of the class who needs to be dealt with, or as someone who is crying out for help using the only method they know.

Some problems are obvious. You will report these to a senior staff member who makes the decision as to whether it is a safeguarding issue. Other times, it may not be clear that a child needs help. This requires a period of observation and noting down warning signs to make an informed decision. Here are just a few of the things to look out for:

  • Children spending a lot of time alone. Whilst they may just enjoy their own company more than that of their peers, they may be internally struggling with something.
  • Any evidence of self-harm. This doesn’t necessarily involve physical, visual harm. It could be shouting out or lashing out in class, or regularly doing things that they know will result in a detention or punishment.
  • Non-attendance, particularly if the student previously had good attendance.
  • Dirty clothing and hunger are significant warning signs that something is wrong at home.
  • Social media statuses. Whilst these may be hard to monitor, young people who frequently post about personal issues or troubles on social media are often looking for help but lacking the appropriate support network to find it.

The schools I work with gather information over a short period of time to draw up a snapshot of things that are causing concern. This can help to start a conversation with a stranger about their life and their future. They enlist my help and, by giving me a breakdown of the family and child situation, I can begin a conversation which starts to unravel what may be the real, root problem.

When called to a meeting in school, the parent might sometimes think that their child or their parenting abilities are being questioned, and may become defensive. I prefer to talk to the family face-to-face in their own home, where they can relax and feel in control of the situation – though I appreciate that this is often impossible for teachers.

Everything has a cause; that that cause can be examined, considered, and may even be altered in the hope that a reversal of behaviours can begin to take place. Listening is all-important, and not making judgements based on other cases is also of great value.

The family are usually fully aware that their child is different, but cannot get to the bottom of why the behaviour is happening; to them, it is the fault of the school, and to the school, it is the fault of the parent.

At school, children often cannot express their true emotions; they feel pain, and so create pain, whether physically towards themselves, or to others. When a student lashes out, it is all too easy to react with punishment. Detention, or a telling off. But there is rarely a benefit in dealing with these children in this way.

We know that hitting a child gives them the subconscious permission to hit another; similarly, punishing a child can allow them to punish others – or, most harmfully, themselves. It can perpetuate rather than halt the cycle.

It is not until you have stood in a person’s shoes that you have the slightest idea of how they function as they do. How can we know what it is like to be 5 years old and having act as a mediator and counsellor to our parents, and an adult and parent to our siblings?

Even in a less resounding situation, the troubled child may have a reason to ‘be a pain’ in the ‘protected environment’ of school, where they are safe from all of these aspects of their home life. Who are we to make judgements based on what we know of the people and families that we have only briefly touched base with over the years?

Where does a disruptive, non-achieving child belong in an educational system that needs high attendance figures and exam-achieving ‘products’? (I use this dreadful phrase tongue-in-cheek, as recently, when I was talking to someone in a school about their new academy, they referred to primary school children as their ’clients’!)

Just because a child has a behaviour issue, should we label them as naughty without finding out why?

– Denise Slater, Relative Values

Your student planners are the ideal place to provide your students with help and support for safeguarding mental health. You can include pages which advise on what to do if a student has issues at home, and pages with who to contact.

You could also include pages in your staff planners with ‘warning signs’ and what to do when you suspect a student has mental health issues.