Mental Health Matters

There’s a big thing going on in this country at present highlighting the increasing problems of mental health within the population. Let me say from the get go that this is highly commendable and I believe that anyone who suffers from a mental health issue (or any other kind of medical issue) needs to be treated in the most applicable, sensitive, way.

However, although the adverts blaze out on our screens and across the airwaves, the support required is… well, it’s not really what it’s made out to be, is it? Wait, I’ll expand on that sentence: the support required is in place – but it’s not entirely accessible.

Let me explain: there are ever-growing numbers of young adults (teens) who are presenting with problems they can’t deal with. There are support groups out there, but the waiting lists for them are long. Months-long. My point here is that if a teen has opened up enough to ask for help, they need it there and then, not months down the line.

We are in danger of overlooking the very people who need it the most; the vulnerable almost-adults who are setting forth into the big wide world and who need to make sense of it before they can do so.

We, as a nation, force our children to sit test after test after test after test – meaning that those who struggle under exam conditions (and believe me when I say that if you have sat in a room full of children aged 6 and 7 when they are taking their SATs, you would know where I am coming from with this) start off from a very young age with the underlying understanding that they may not be quite good enough. Not as good as Smart Eric who finds it easy to write things down; not as good as Clever Jenny who sails through everything (with apologies to Eric and Jenny – they were the first names that sprang to mind). Yet these kids, who the government has determined need to show their ability through sitting exams rather than through coursework and/or other ways (observation being one way I can think of, off the top of my head) go through school – their childhood – having already learned that they aren’t anything special.

The EYFS highlights the need for children’s uniqueness to be rewarded. Every child, yes, every child, has their own particular abilities. They may not be ‘good’ at Maths or English, but they are damned good at science and nature and explaining how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly (for example), or have brilliant physical ability skills. Some may not be so hot at sitting still and putting pen to paper to try to write something, but they are fantastic artists and show their learning that way. These are the very youngest students, and letting them show adults (teachers) in different ways that they do understand what they are being taught, works.

Before you all start, I know the importance of being able to read and write. I am passionate that all children should learn how to do this. A child who cannot read and write is heading for a jobless future. But do they really need to be tested on what verbs, nouns, adverbs, synonyms and antonyms (etc.) are, under exam conditions, at age 6? Really?

As has always been the case, if a child is bright, they get attention and help to achieve their best; if a child is less able, they also get attention and help. It’s the middling children who suffer; those who try their best, get solid results that aren’t either high or low, and are not rewarded for their struggles. These kids, I believe, are the ones who get lost along the way. Overlooked and pretty much ignored. Who knows how much better they would do if they, too, got the attention given to the child who causes chaos because they are trying to wriggle out of work, or the super-bright one who is always picked to give the answers because the teacher knows they have them?

I’m not having a go at teachers here. I’m really not. They are constrained by constantly changing government guidelines, increasing class sizes, mixed ability classes and endless, sodding testing. How can any teacher expect to be able to put their passion into lessons when they are having to teach to test? How can the children who need their help receive it, or be shown different ways of understanding, when at the end of it, it all comes down to passing tests?  Schools do their best – they truly do. If the funds are there they use them for the good of the students. But today, all we hear about are cuts, cuts and more cuts. Schools are expected to attain the best results possible with decreasing financial support. And I won’t even bother going into the salary debate.

Suffice it to say – nowadays we appear to be setting our children up to fail right from the start!

Which brings me back to mental health issues in young adults. I have seen (and heard of) so many youngsters who are bright, capable, young people, who are stressed so badly by schooling and exams that they no longer feel worthy of living; who self-harm as a means of coping; who either shut off their emotions or express them in inappropriate ways. Where do they go when they need help? The GP? They will give out a number for the parent/child to ring to explain the problems they are having, and then someone will ring them back for a chat. Inevitably, at the end of that, the parent/child is told they will have to wait six months or so before they can have an appointment. Six months. Minimum. And that’s if they ring them back in the first place.

How does that help the self-harmer? How does that help the anxious, withdrawn child who has finally plucked up the courage to ask for help? How does it help the child who is turning to alcohol or drugs, or prostitution? How does that stop any abusers the child is trying to expose? How is a youngster supposed to process any of this when nobody is there to help them get their fears/problems out in the open and then act on them? How do we help these young adults to feel safe, loved, worthwhile and secure?

Imagine you have been told you have an illness that needs treatment now. Then imagine how you’d feel if you were told you’d have to wait six months to see the specialist… Would you raise a stink about it?

At any age, people with mental health problems are, arguably, the most vulnerable of all because the very fact that they have a mental illness, with all the stigma attached to that, means that the sufferer is highly unlikely to be able to kick up a stink.

We all talk about our children being the future – isn’t it time we put our money where our mouths are and invest in them? If there’s a six-month waiting list – open new centres. Reduce the lists. Give our children the knowledge and understanding that someone will listen to them, before it’s too late and the self-harm becomes accidental suicide, or the drugs and alcohol lead to overdose.

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