Charles Dickens; A Tale of Two Cities
I sometimes think that the above quote could apply to a great deal of human experience. At times, we are in a state of happiness, the next can be plunged into indescribable sadness. I have a bipolar friend who exists in such a state, an exceptionally clever man, capable of amazing strategic planning, creating several projects at the same time. This then becomes his difficulty, in keeping so many plates spinning, that, when they start to fall, he falls with them. He’s at the very sharp end of mental health issues, occasionally requiring hospitalisation and medical intervention.
This week, in the TES, Tom Rogers wrote about his own situation. It’s a very open and honest first-hand account of how mental illness creeps up and takes hold, destabilising the person and everything around them.
From my own life, I would highlight two points of significant sadness, the first was when my mum walked out on us. As a child of twelve, this was devastating, even more so because it had been talked about for several weeks; it would happen on a specific day, when she had finished the summer season in a local hotel. Separation and divorce in the mid-1960s was messy, so the formal situations, meetings with magistrates who had to decide where we’d live, added to stress, rather than being supportive. It affected my sister far more than me. For some reason, my defence mechanism was to believe that mum had died, it was easier than feeling rejected. An unexpected meeting at my sister’s house, some ten years later, led to many tears in the car afterwards; more from opportunities lost. Fortunately, my first wife, Della, was with me and was my talking companion, creating an appropriate perspective.
After Della’s death, following twelve years of living with breast cancer was an equally devastating event, in some ways ameliorated by the time scale and being able to support her through the last couple of months. However, I did, for several weeks, take myself off into the woods, or other quiet spots, armed with a notebook, where I sat and “talked to myself”, as prose and poetry. I gradually talked myself back to a form of reality.
A kind friend, whom I eventually married, was my Samaritan and walked with me while I talked. Bereavement is an odd time for all concerned. Some people, for the right motives, manage to say the wrong things. It got easier.
Is your school a listening school?
Feeling sad, to differing degrees, or just being out of sorts is a natural part of living. Getting things done can demand a bit of extra effort, which some seek to call grit and resilience. To me, that would depend on the nature of the challenge and whether the person seeking to accomplish it has a clear understanding of purpose, so that their efforts are focused. “Pulling yourself together” might just require a modicum of interactive therapeutic talk.
The problems can increase if there seems no end to the sadness or if there seem no options for your own efforts to get past obstacles. This can be made worse by having no-one to turn to or to talk with.
My personal Samaritan is also a Samaritan in her spare time, manning a local telephone, answering texts or emails or meeting with callers. This scheme offers a listening ear in different forms available throughout the day and well into the night.
A report in the Guardian, based on a Care Quality Commission report showing that there can be an 18-month wait for a referral to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) for those with potential mental health issues.
Long delays are leading to some children starting to self-harm or fall out of education, couples breaking up and parents having to stop working so they can look after their child, the charity Young Minds said. Statistics show that one in five children referred for treatment in England cannot be seen by overstretched child and adolescent mental health services, and some families end up seeking private care.
Or are you too busy?
A child in school can exhibit anxieties in a wide variety of ways; while some can talk and explain, seeking out their personal listening ear, others act out in some way, which inevitably causes a different level of school concern.
I want to encourage adults to be a STARR; stop, think, ask, respond and report. All adults in school are the eyes and ears of the organisation, any of whom should be able to interact with any child whom they suspect might be showing distress to some degree. In some schools there are specific staff with roles that involve taking the initial concern and seeking to understand the issues more fully. Their role is to allow the child to talk and develop their own story. This may need to be verified in some way, or, in extreme cases, might involve escalation to higher authority, or to external organisation such as Child Protection.
Developing the child narrative is an essential precursor to creating a case study to share with someone like an Educational Psychologist, if a developing concern, or with Child Protection if a sudden need. Collated via several sources, with evidence of antecedents, behaviours, consequences and decisions, the more evidence, the better.
While adults might begin to suspect a mental issue, teachers and school staff are not qualified to diagnose. Their role, in spotting and describing clearly the social and emotional elements in a child’s life could be the significant difference that leads to an appropriate intervention. Sometimes, it can be the spotting and chatting that offers insights and guidance, sufficient to provide the child with skills to support themselves. Sometimes, the spotting and chatting can open a can of worms that has to be addressed to safeguard the child. Despite some teachers thinking otherwise, spotting and caring have always been a part of the teacher role. Long may it remain so.
Although we might hope that parents are aware and the first line of support, for a number of children, their teacher can also be their Samaritan; don’t walk by…
It’s good to talk.