I must admit that I have never been formally trained on how to teach a child suffering from mental health issues or even how to bring the topic up in the classroom.
Whilst these tips by Martin Williams are all within the realms of common sense, it is good to get the reassurance that you can deal with something effectively even if you were never trained to do so:
Talk about mental health
“Mental health was never mentioned at school at all,” says Charlotte Walker, who now writes a blog on mental health issues. “I found out I had depression aged 12 from a teenage health guide.”
Now a mother, Walker is acutely aware that there is still a worrying lack of discussion about mental health in schools. It’s a problem that can not only lead to stigmatisation, but also cause health issues to go undiagnosed. “My son’s experience is that schools focus on the ‘safer’ feeling topics, such as insomnia and exam stress, but don’t dare go into the realms of bipolar or schizophrenia.”
Walker suggests that teachers should tackle the problem by simply trying to be more candid about mental health when chatting to children. “We’ve seen that sex and relationship education doesn’t always work because it’s in dedicated sessions,” she explains. “I think it’s important to have a general spirit of openness.”
It’s also important to talk openly about what support is in place for children who are experiencing difficulties, she says. “It tends to be that you only find out what’s on offer once you’ve declared your child is having problems,” Walker says. “If the information is given out to everyone, no one is singled out for stigma or discrimination.”
But tackle derogatory language
While it’s important to encourage discussion of mental health, research has shown that the use of pejorative terms about mental health problems are common in many children’s everyday language. While this is reflective of a wider societal problem, teachers can do their bit by cracking down on language when it is used in a derogatory or abusive way.
“Discriminatory language needs to be challenged,” says Walker. “Schools have come a long way with this on homophobia, but we need challenge the use derogatory words like ‘psycho’ or ‘schizo’ and the devaluing of clinical terms.”
Consultant psychiatrist Arun Chopra has said previously that misuse of terminology leads to misunderstandings about mental health. “You would never hear it used in relation to a physical condition,” he says. “You wouldn’t hear someone being described as a bit diabetic.”
Importantly, however – as has been pointed out before – language is just the visible surface of a deeper discrimination, so tacking language alone can never be the full solution.
Unlike physical problems, some mental illnesses aren’t so obvious. “Only a couple of teachers and a handful of friends knew I was anything other than totally fine because I hid it,” says Lorraine Davies, who suffered from anxiety and depression at school. “If I’d been schizophrenic or suicidal maybe it would have been more noticeable, so, weirdly, I might have found more support and less whispering from friends behind my back as they tried to work out why I was being ‘weird’.”
For teachers, the key is to be on the look out for warning signs, according to Dr Raphael Kelvin, the clinical lead for Minded, a website designed to help pupils and teachers understand mental health issues. He suggests that teachers brush up on their knowledge of symptoms and never ignore a child whose behaviour fluctuates.
“If teachers understand that depression can strike not just when someone is saying they’re depressed, but also with someone who’s concentration and motivation has changed, they might be able to help them.”
Kelvin says teachers need to be alert, but do not need to become psychiatrists to help. If in doubt, he says, share your concerns with parents and other teachers to get to the root of the problem.
Help children tell their story to friends
“It’s very important to have a narrative about these things,” says Dr Kelvin, “people need a story to explain how things are. When kids come to the clinic after a period of difficulty, I often try to encourage them to have a story about their experience to explain what they’ve been through to their peers and friends.
“Often they either want to tell everybody or nobody, and the responses vary. The kid who tells everybody can become the butt of insensitive remarks; but the ones who tell nobody end up feeling very isolated. So how do they talk about it to their friends and how much do they want to say? What words do they need to tell their story in a way that’s not too painful? I think those are the kind of things that teachers can support pupils with. If you hear the story of why someone is behaving in a certain way you get a depth of understanding.”
Don’t alienate them further
A child who is experiencing mental health discrimination is such a delicate issue that approaching it clumsily or ignoring it all together can intensify the problem.
Davies says that a lack of understanding among certain teachers pushed her further outside the protection school should provide. “I was asked never to attend one teacher’s classes ever again as I was often late to his 9am because my anxiety was too high for me to get the school bus. Another went out of his way to provoke me – I think he thought I was a drama queen who needed a firm hand.”
Even teachers who are trying to help need to be careful, says Wilson. They should listen closely to pupils’ social concerns and approach issues with huge sensitivity.
“For instance, there are an awful lot of children who will have nothing to do with their classroom assistant because their friends laugh at them,” he says. “You’ve got to take that on board because their self-esteem is often at such a low ebb that anything will set them off. It’s all very finely balanced.”
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