Time to stop stigmatising mental health problems at school
A headteacher asks: is “mental” the new “gay”?
“What do you mean Miss?… Have we got to walk?… Where is the school minibus… walking is so gay!”.
The mutation of the term “gay” into playground slang for anything or anyone that students don’t like or don’t want to do has quite rightly always been challenged. When spoken to, students are often indignant or simply do not comprehend that this language is inappropriate. “We aren’t being homophobic… it’s just a word we use…” However, persistence, and a will to change the acceptability of the use of expressions such as “gay” that cause offence has had an impact, and certainly we have seen their use in the playground decrease over time.
In a similar way, attitudes to racism and racist language have altered significantly since the death of Stephen Lawrence and the publication of the MacPherson report. Such language is now universally seen as unacceptable by teachers, students and parents alike. Such a change did not take place over night. It took the efforts of parents, teachers, the school curriculum and time. It is clear now that attitudes to racist and homophobic language in schools have shifted significantly, but is there more to be done?
The language used to describe mental health issues, and the taboos surrounding their discussion in school are all too evident. Compare for example the reaction of our students to the tragic death of Gary Speed and the heart attack suffered by Fabrice Muamba. Both events struck a chord with our boys, yet we found it much easier to discuss and react to Fabrice’s heart condition than Gary’s mental health issues.
With Fabrice Muamba, the reaction of parents, students and teachers was: “this might happen to one of us… we need to get more heart screening and a defibrillator”
With Gary Speed, the reaction was very different. Students did not understand, and when questioned some teachers did not feel empowered to discuss. Parents, teachers and students never entertained the idea that this is something that may happen to them or their family. Real sadness and empathy for Gary and his family, but discussion of mental health issues? I am afraid not.
Young people today come into contact with mental health issues in a variety of forms, whether it be depression, dependency or dementia. So is it right that the use of the terms “mental”, “nutter” or “mad” are routinely heard used by both staff and students alike?
Some would argue that all such terms be banned from use and challenged when heard. I would suggest that a more open discussion around the issues surrounding mental health and the casual, sometimes hurtful, terms used to describe it just as we have with both racist and homophobic language.
The impact that such words can have on a young person in the midst of living or dealing with mental health problems cannot be underestimated, and may not be easy to spot, as often these circumstances are not known about by staff.
Unless we give young people the emotional tools to express and discuss their feelings, we are in danger of avoiding the part that mental health so often plays in in their lives. At Carshalton Boys, citizenship education has played a vital role, yet these lessons are under threat in secondary schools with the reshaping of the national curriculum and greater pressure to study subjects to full course GCSE level.
Another useful resource for us has come from Time to Change, an anti-stigma campaign run by the leading mental health charities, Mind and Rethink Mental Illness. Time to Change have run several television advertising campaigns aimed at people who know someone with a mental health problem – family, friends, colleagues and neighbours – but who don’t realise the harmful impact their attitudes, behaviours and language can have.
These short videos have been invaluable in providing stimulus material for teachers to use with students when discussing mental health issues and have had a real impact on students’ attitudes language and behaviour.
So is “mental” the new “gay”? I would suggest that both terms need to be challenged and acknowledged as issues to be discussed and not shied away from with young people if we are to ensure that the taboos of society around mental health are not passed on to the next generation.
• Simon Barber has been the headteacher at Carshalton Boys Sports College in South West London for 11 years.
Simon Barber was one of the guests at a Guardian roundtable in association with Time to Change. Read Joanna Moorhead’s report on the roundtable here.
• One in ten children between the ages of one and 15 has a mental health disorder. (The Office for National Statistics Mental health in children and young people in Great Britain, 2005)
• Estimates vary, but research suggests that 20% of children have a mental health problem in any given year, and about 10% at any one time. (Lifetime Impacts: Childhood and Adolescent Mental Health, Understanding The Lifetime Impacts, Mental Health Foundation, 2005)
A survey of 546 Teacher Network members on mental health discrimination by Time to Change found:
• 93% of head teachers and 60% of class teachers said they wanted mental health stigma dealt with across the entire curriculum.
• 88% of teachers and 96% of teaching assistants had heard pupils using phrases which stigmatise mental health in school (eg: You’re driving me mad, I’ve had a mental day at school, I don’t like John he’s a psycho, stop acting like a weirdo).
• 45% of teachers surveyed did nothing about language which stigmatises mental health immediately but dealt with it at a later date either individually or at a class level.
• 33% stopped the pupils involved immediately and explained the language is inappropriate.
• 22% of teachers did nothing as believed language wasn’t inappropriate.
• 76% of teachers reported not getting guidance on school policy towards dealing with mental health stigma.
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