Some of the time, this is what I almost say ( and I feel bad for admitting this). I don’t say it, but it’s running through my head, I know……… I am a terrible human being. Now bear with me, I am not the most eloquent ( and a bit nervous about this blog post, so please read the whole thing before you criticise me ) and I will probably go round in circles to get to my point.
Running a boarding house with 30 girls varying in age, definitely tests your patience. The pupils are tired and the summer holidays aren’t close enough to visualise. So they get upset at the smallest issue. This week the small issues have included, boyfriends not texting, lost socks, a friend not listening to a poem and my favourite. “I can’t find the end of the sellotape“. And when I say upset, I mean full crying, mascara running down their face, with the attractive runny nose. I am sympathetic ( even though I am thinking how ridiculous ) but I do care and want to help so I listen, support and then I normally come up with pearls of wisdom that often make me sound like my mum. It’s not the end of the world, no use crying over spilt milk and when they say, it’s not fair , I often agree and say “life’s not fair”.
The students will sometimes say I don’t understand ( and rereading the above paragraph it does make me sound very cold hearted) but they are right. I don’t. I can’t relate to how upset they are getting over something which in my mind is something small. Especially when about an hour before they came to me I was filling in an Early Help Assessment form for a girl who has been watching her mum and dad in an abusive relationship for 6 years and the police got involved last night. (One good thing about the small issues is that it does remind me that the world isn’t all doom and gloom. It can add some perspective on the role as DSL.) So how can I understand? Well luckily I have my Mental Health first aid training to refer to and a great nursing team and a desire to help these students learn resilience.
The reason why this is so prominent in my mind right now is seeing the different sides of the Mental Health debate on twitter. While I have been uncomfortable with some of the tone of the comments ( or Banter as my yr9 students would say) I am in complete agreement that Mental Health issues are on the rise in schools as Natasha Devon has pointed out. Why are they on the increase?, I don’t know. I am not sure I agree that exam pressure is the main cause. Speaking to my pupils, they disagree strongly that school or teachers put pressure on them, stating that they themselves have high expectations. How much of this is subliminal messages, I can’t say. But the number of students who are on anti depressants is higher, number of pupils self harming is higher, number of pupils who have been diagnosed with anxiety, depression and eating issues is higher. I have to input these numbers for my schools Child Protection audit to my LSCB every year, so I can track the last 6 years and numbers have gone up. I haven’t diagnosed any of these students, these numbers are students who I am aware of that are seeing doctors/ CAMH or private counselling. As I said these are the students I am aware of, because they don’t have to share info with the schools. I am confident that there are more, why? Well at exam time, we get an influx of letters ( to the examination officer, not me the DSL) from Doctors telling us that the student needs special consideration because……… ( I will let you fill in the blank) It would be interesting to see the numbers from AQA or OCR for example to see if the numbers have gone up or are the same.
Tom Bennett is questioning if this is a current and new crisis. Perhaps the bit I surprised at the most is the idea that it’s not a current issue. I have had the training on how to spot signs of mental health ( as suggested by inspectors this year), read the KSCIE part one and two ( written by the Government this month) and am aware of my obligation as a school, so how can it not be a current issue? I can’t help wondering if perhaps student behaviour liked the ones mentioned at the beginning is clouding the issue, especially after reading his article where he describes students who have used disturbing language to explain how they are feeling but then just need to talk their feelings through. But the problem is that Mental Health is very different for everyone and ignoring these small issues and not giving students skills to cope doesn’t help. From my experience ( and I am only a teacher not a professional) this creates problems at a later date. Tom is right we all have our own stories or experience of someone who has struggled with big and little issues in completely different ways, but that doesn’t mean that we just ignore it and let students get on with it. Plus would you want to be the teacher that thinks they are being ridiculous and then find out it was really a call for help, but now it’s too late. Ok I am being dramatic, but let me explain why. If on duty in the house a student presents a pain in their arm. Explains they were jumping on the bed, fell off and landed on their arm, I run through all possibilities, including the worse case situation. My instinct might be thinking, they have just hurt their arm, but they could have broken it. I wouldn’t ignore the student and tell them to just get on with it. So I would get it checked out. 90% of the time, they are fine, but every now and again the student has done something serious. Even if it wasn’t serious we put a risk assessment into place and try to stop the student making the same mistake again. Why would I not use the same approach to Mental Health?
So back to the child who can’t find the end of the sellotape. It’s my job along with parents to give her strategies to deal with these situations. To give her the tools to analysis how she is feeling so that she can consider if this is really the issue or is there another reason why they are upset. Was this just the cherry on top of the very busy and stressful week? I try talking and being appropriately sympathetic and not judging. This takes time, something boarding staff would like to have more of. And sometimes the way the child deals with this over time can spiral. Students often use words such as depressed, anxiety attack and “what’s the point in my life” as normal everyday language. Imagine being on duty over night with a pupil who has just spilled their inner thoughts out to you. You phone your support team, do a risk assessment, phone CAMH, who do a risk assessment then check on them every minute while they are sleeping. That particular student might have been fine over night, until the next issue and then, do I just chance it? Of course not, that would be ridiculous. As Tom pointed out, I am not a medical professional. I can’t diagnose if she really means it or not. CAMH can give me advice but they are busy. In fact this is a good indicator of the increase in Mental Health issues. Four years ago the waiting list for a diagnosis appointment was 3 to 4 weeks, now most of the referrals I have made, there has been a 6 to 7 week waiting list. I am well aware that there have been cut backs and they have less staff so perhaps you can’t compare year upon year, but to me this is a very obvious indicator. We as teaching staff want the medical team, the professionals to give us some guidelines and I think this is what has increased. This is the current issue.
Where I do agree with Tom is the raised profile the media has made with Mental Health and how this can be a hindrance. We hear a lot about raising awareness, people standing up and sharing their story. I am fed up with this. Asking students to disclose and then not actually being able to offer any support or structure has to be worse. The rejection or message that they hear is, ” your not ill/ thin enough for us to help”. Some students then eat less. Some think, what’s the point, no one really cares. I must be a freak, I don’t even have a Mental Health problem that can be diagnosed, I am just odd. Natasha is right, there is an increase and Toms right, mental health is too important to get it wrong and at the moment I don’t think we are getting it right.