About 180 teachers from Sydney Catholic schools are now accredited Youth Mental Health First Aid providers after completing the internationally recognised two-day course. It covers where and how to get help for a young person aged 12 to 18 with poor mental health.
Depression, anxiety, psychosis, eating disorders and substance misuse are discussed in depth, along with how to respond to traumatic events, suicidal thoughts, self harm and other mental health crises. Evidence based on research and knowledge of adolescent development is used, so that teachers can recognise the signs and intervene early.
Education Officer: Complex Social & Emotional Needs at Sydney Catholic Schools, Jennie Coen, is an accredited mental health social worker who specialises in self harm. She will present a talk School Safety, Self Harm and the Duty of Care at the Hawaii International Education Conference in January.
“It is one of the biggest issues schools face now,” she said. “Within national statistics released last year, one in 10 teenagers who were interviewed admitted that they were engaged in self-harming behaviour.”
Education is a protective factor.
Self harm is any deliberate attempt to hurt oneself and can include ingesting dangerous substances, starving through an eating disorder or cutting at school, home and on social media where parents and friends may become aware of the problem. Ms Coen said the reasons for self harm can be complex, from being used to forget problems or to gain a euphoric reaction, or as a reminder they are capable of feeling in the case of some trauma survivors.
“Attention is not the reason young people self harm,” Ms Coen said.
“When I do mental health first aid with teachers I emphasise that it is important to respond to student self harm rather than think you will be giving the young person undeserved attention.”
While some anxiety is common the often tumultuous teen years, behavioural changes such as withdrawal from friendship groups and falling grades can signal poor mental health.
36% of parents said a school principal or teacher was the first to recognise their child may have a mental health or behavioural problem.*
“It’s common for people to be sad if something bad happens,” Ms Coen said. “That’s real life and part of building resilience, but for teenagers in secondary school a lack of willingness to get engaged in things they used to like – like playing sport or going out with friends – tend to be indicators.
“In primary school it tends to be aggressive misbehaviour, crying, or refusal to go to school or to do what the teacher says.
“Often kids’ marks will drop suddenly or they’ll become irritable or withdrawn. Sleep disruption is another big one but often teachers don’t see it unless a student is falling asleep in class. It’s really important to intervene when you first see it, even if you’re wrong, because once you leave it the situation gets worse.”
Sydney Catholic Schools will also pilot new guidelines of how to respond to young people with serious mental health issues at school and make sure they get appropriate help from outside or can transition smoothly back to school if they have visited a mental health facility for treatment.
“Education is a protective factor,’’ Ms Coen said. “Teachers have hundreds of teenagers walk through their doors every day and know what adolescent behaviour and developmental milestones look like, so they tend to spot a mental health disorder in a young person more quickly than other adults do.
“Anxiety when not treated becomes depression. That is then sometimes a gateway into other behaviours to try and help them cope, so early intervention is really important, and that’s why we want to skill up teachers.
“It’s really important for schools and parents to collaborate and for parents not to be worried about having a discussion with the school, because if we know what is happening we can set up a proper support system.”
Source: * The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents, 2015, Department of Health, Canberra
Parentline – 1300 30 1300
Kids Helpline – 1800 55 1800
Headspace – www.headspace.org.au
Lifeline – 13 11 14
Beyond Blue: – 1300 22 4636