During this Mental Health Awareness Week, blogger Ray writes for us about his experience of discussing depression and mental illness with a group of young people, and talks about small ways in which you can help.
Depression and mental illness can strike anyone, including the young. It has been recently recognised by the education industry that students need support and ironically education. This has already begun in some schools and I taught a PSHE lesson on the topic. The resources were satisfactory and featured basic information, the types of depression and the main organisations in existence to help. What it did not include was the human element how would you react if your friend became mentally ill or depressed? Could you recognise the signs? What help could you give? Who would you turn to?
We explored these scenarios and I asked if your friend should be ashamed about their illness? Is it a real illness? What emerged from this group discussion was the realisation that the class of Year 11's not only wanted to talk about this topic but had many intelligent questions to ask. Boys were just as concerned and inquisitive about causes, symptoms and treatment. I explained that males have the highest suicide rate out of the genders and that it is thought that because boys have been culturally encouraged to be 'tough', leading to the inability to talk about emotions, that this is largely to blame.
We discussed the fact that changes in a person’s mind state produce chemical reactions in the brain and physical symptoms, so it is a real illness. I explained that adolescence is a time when hormonal and chemical changes in the brain as well as physical changes and self-awareness, all contribute towards higher levels of anxiety and paranoia; with the use of alcohol or drugs these emotions are magnified. This is also the time when self-confidence and self-esteem are being built up and knocked down on a regular basis. If these are 'down' more than 'up' our self-worth is destroyed and in need of help.
During my plenary, a survey, I asked what did students still want to know and the most popular reply was where do I go for help, either for themselves or another if the need arose. They all felt that the topic had been fully covered and that they now had a better understanding of it; one student wrote 'Excellent! 10/10'
I thanked them for their participation and told them that I knew about the topic because I had become depressed when my son died when he was 6 years old many years ago. 'Should I be ashamed of that?' And the class gave a resounding 'No!'
I summarised our very productive lesson with a warning, 'if you do feel deeply depressed or your behaviour is affecting your health, ask for help from people you trust. And if anyone thinks that their friend is becoming mentally unwell talk to them, try to help, get them to ask for help and let the people they trust know about your concerns.
As much as I felt good that I had delivered the message well and it had been discussed, debated and understood, I also felt concerned that the help for mental illness and treatment is limited and at an all-time low.
There is an idea afoot to have student mental health mentors, and whilst I recognise an urgent need amongst the young for support, it is professional support that they require. I have seen this model work for bullying, with mentors explaining about their own experience and how they dealt with it or sought help but mental health has so many complex factors surrounding it for it to work; by all means have student mentors helping to ‘flag’ up persons of concern but to mentor them is one step too far in my opinion. It is a money-free option that will disrupt the mentor’s learning and can exacerbate the illness if not handled correctly by professionals. I see regular evidence of self-harming and hear tales by students of their drug/alcohol use and as teachers we have a duty of care. We can alert the Children Protection Officers and we can be sympathetic and sometimes we can do more.
One GCSE student of mine could hear voices, which distracted her day to day activities and it was agreed with the hospital and support staff to allow her to wear earphones and listen to music during the practical tasks. I teach Art and this was possible but unfortunately she began to withdraw more and more and spent most of her time either in Pastoral care or hospital; I visited her regularly and kept her on course with her art work which she enjoyed doing. She gained an ‘A’.
With my subject self -confidence is a huge stumbling block for many, with talented students saying ‘ I am not very good’ or ‘I can’t draw’; my advice is always the same I tell them that good artists are usually perfectionists, they want the result to be almost photographic but that it does not have to be to be good. Ask a sample of people you trust if they think what you have drawn or painted is good and then believe what they say because often it is the critic in your head that is stopping you from believing it. I have met famous artists who still ‘suffer’ in this way.
Conversely, by showing lesser able students, tricks and techniques that produce impressive results, you can see their self-confidence elevated. Their smiles and moments of pride make it worthwhile.
I encouraged other GCSE students of mine who were sent to behavioural units to return to the school at the end of each day for me to give them a summary of the lesson they missed and what needs to be completed next and how to do it, it was then up to them to do it. These students, who were predicted to fail, got ‘C’ grades.
We don’t have to be miracle workers but I have found that by showing that you do genuinely care, the students want to get the result for you as well as themselves.