The peak period for diagnosis of metal health problems is between the ages of about ten and thirty. For the first third of that time schools play an import part in the life of young people. However, whether they are as responsive to mental health issues as to physical health matters is worthy of scrutiny as the Fooks lecture I attended recently in Oxford made clear.
Dr Ian Goodyer from Cambridge suggested in the lecture that we all have a checklist of what to do if we encounter a cut finger; stop the bleeding, prevent infection and find a sticking plaster. But, there isn’t the same level of immediate in-house steps to dealing with mental health matters. Of course, if the cut is deep or otherwise problematic, you seek expert help. The same is true for diseases of the mind. But, how much do we offer simple suggestions to teachers and others to look for signs of an unwell mind? Thirty years ago Sir Keith Joseph as Secretary of State for Education started the assault on universities rather than schools preparing teachers with an attack on the study of the ‘ologies. I think he especially disliked sociology, but psychology became caught up in the general attack along with philosophy and the history and governance of education. He may have had a point. However, taken to extreme the cure is sometimes perhaps worse than the disease.
As we now teach children in classes, not just the class as a whole, there is a need to know pupils as individuals and not just en-masse. This is challenging for secondary school teachers with many different groups to teach each week. I am sure that trying to do the best for every child has added to stress levels of teachers, as it is much more demanding than teaching to the average of the class.
Teachers are the only group in society working day in and day out with young people going through profound physical, emotional and psychological changes, especially during their teenage years, yet how well do we prepare them for this task?
It would be interesting to see how the different routes into the profession deal with these challenges at the present time? How far do trainees meet with school nurses and counsellors to discuss the challenges young people face during adolescence and how they respond to them. Do we tell teachers to look for self-harming, for eating disorders, and for isolation and failure to engage in class? These are arguably as important as other child safety issues, but while these receive headline attention Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services have languished as the poor relation of an under-funded part of the National Health Service. Fortunately, the Health Select Committee at Westminster has recently illuminated this dark space and Ministers in the Health Department, if not yet in education, have taken some notice.
As a man interested in numbers, I could look at the loss of productivity or the absence figures cited by Ian Goodyer in his lecture, but as a human being I see the tragedy behind the numbers and some of the effects on individuals and their families. If restoring the ‘ologies to teacher preparation saved one young person from self-harm, an eating disorder or a suicide it will have been well worth doing.