‘My bipolar was seen as growing pains.’ Stories of mental health stigma in school
With more young people experiencing anxiety and depression, a teacher and pupil talk about their experiences and how schools can help
Just being more open to the topic of mental health can make a significant impact on young people. Photograph: Alamy
The number of young people experiencing anxiety and depression has increased by 70% in the past 25 years. It is estimated that 45,000 people under the age of 16 experience a mental health problem. And given that over half of adults with a mental illness are diagnosed before the age of 15, teachers can play a vital role in de-stigmatising mental health for young people.
One young person and a teacher explain their relationship with mental illness, and discuss what schools can do to help.
The teacher: ‘Mental health should be covered in the curriculum’
I haven’t always been a teacher, I used to be in the army, says teacher Charlie Stephenson. He left this job in his early twenties and although he wanted to travel the world, he always knew that he wanted to help people.
The 30-year-old now teaches at a school attached to a mental health unit in Edgware, London. He was inspired into the job for professional and personal reasons: “My niece had experienced depression, and when I left the army I also had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”
Charlie originally trained as a primary school teacher but has been working with children who have experienced mental illness for several years now. He has worked with children aged 13-18, and seen the stigma many experience.
“My PTSD was mild, and thanks to my faith and the support of friends and family I recovered,” he says.
Some students that Charlie works with have been let down by mainstream school, and not always had the right support. “Some schools don’t want to know about their student’s problems, which just makes things worse.”
Conversely, Charlie’s school takes a more individual approach. “Before we start thinking about grades and subjects, we sit down with new students and get to know them,” he says. “It’s about accommodating their needs and helping them recover. Of course, we’re a specialist school and that’s our job, but teachers in mainstream schools can also make a difference by sparing five minutes to listen to their pupils or even just ask how they are.”
Charlie says that while education needs a structural overhaul to cope with the changing needs of students, social attitudes concerning mental health also need to be tackled.
Mental health should be covered in the curriculum, says Charlie who calls for compulsory training days for teachers and inset days for pupils to learn about these problems. “Because there are so many different types of mental health problems, education can only do so much. We really need to start tackling the prejudice surrounding it immediately. Talking is an important part of this – it’s the first step in helping people and it also helps others understand these problems too. For me the most rewarding part of my job is also the most challenging. Knowing that a student is going to return to mainstream education is a great feeling, but the worry that they might not can be awful. But that’s why I chose this job.”
– Charlie Stephenson is from Brixton in London. He teaches at a school attached to a mental health unit in Edgware.
The student: ‘I was made to feel bipolar disorder was contagious’
When she was eight years old, Emma Peacock from London was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. At 14 she was then diagnosed with depression. Two months later she tried to end her life.
“I started feeling low very quickly,” she says. “ I attempted suicide, which is when I went to hospital for the first time.”
Emma spent the equivalent of two years in hospital until she was told that she had been misdiagnosed with depression and actually had bipolar disorder. At 16 she started getting the right treatment.
Now aged 18, her moods have stabilised, and today Emma is studying AS-levels in biology, drama, maths and sociology. She hopes to become an occupational therapist.
Emma says that – although things are better now – her recovery could have been made easier with support from her school.
“They just let things happen,” she says. “They didn’t even bother to contact me while I was in hospital. When I was discharged and wanted to return they wouldn’t let me because they said I’d disrupt other pupils. It was as if they thought bipolar disorder was contagious. That was the first time I’d encountered discrimination.”
Having been misdiagnosed herself, Emma says that there’s a tendency to downplay young people’s problems. “Often they are dismissed as growing pains,” she says. “This means problems don’t get addressed until they’re very serious. ”
It was this culture of silence that meant some of her friends reacted negatively, she says. But she does not blame them. “In my school, they didn’t educate anyone about it. It felt like they were somehow protecting students from mental illness by not telling them about it. This meant that when someone had a problem – like me – no one knew what was happening and stigma increased.”
Like Charlie, Emma also wants mental health to be part of the curriculum to help combat prejudice.
People need to be educated, including teachers, she says. “If one in ten children is experiencing a mental health problem then they need to be equipped to deal with that. Between hospital and my current college I attended a specialist school, where they’d speak to you like a person and invite speakers to give lectures – people who’d recovered from a range of mental health problems. This was a really motivating experience for me, but people also need to realise that people like that aren’t so exceptional and that mental health problems are a normal part of life. And the only way we’re going to achieve that is to get people talking.”
– Emma Peacock, 18, from London
Content on this page is provided and funded by Time to Change, supporter of the Tackling mental health stigma in schools series.
Credit: The Guardian Newspaper