Saturday, April 5, 2014
Suicide in young people should never occur - Ever! So what should we do? (2: Let's Change Schools)
I had a lengthy conversation the other evening with a school counsellor from a country school. They had received three copies of our small book ‘Seeking Solutions: a Guide for School Staff’, which has now been sent free of charge to every high school in Australia for which we could get an address. Just for the record, we also sent one copy of the companion books ‘Seeking Solutions: a Guide for Parents’, and ‘Seeking Solutions: a Guide for Young People’. The development of this series is solidly grounded in a qualitative research program we did several years ago, interviewing and videotaping over 60 young self-injurers and over 40 professionals about their opinions about what needed to be done. It also follows a dozen, more traditional, cross-sectional studies and a 3-year longitudinal study, as well as our 2009/10 national epidemiological study.
OK, back to our counsellor. They had read the booklets, but had more questions. Great. “How do you manage the parents of someone currently self-injuring?” “How do you manage the friends of a person who is self-injuring?” “How do you get back-up resources for the school, and links to mental health services?” We worked our way through those, and got to ‘school ethos’. The person was new to the school as a counsellor, and struggled to tell me about the values on which school teaching programs were based.
We began to discuss the sort of programs that could be embedded in the school curriculum that might help young people to develop resilience and optimism to protect them from bullying and some of the problems deriving from abuse in the home. They had not heard of ‘MindMatters’ (http://www.mindmatters.edu.au), and were pretty sure it was not part of their school. Nor had they heard of ‘KidsMatter’ (www.kidsmatter.edu.au), and did not believe it was part of their junior school. They originated from another country, so we did some basic discussion around the idea that improved resilience might improve learning outcomes. That seemed to be a bit of a novel idea, and I cast around for something they might of heard of like Social and Emotional Learning (http://www.casel.org/social-and-emotional-learning/) for which there seems to be a solid research base. SEL seems to be gaining ground in Government Education Departments like Queensland (http://education.qld.gov.au/actsmartbesafe/teachers/sel.html) and Victoria http://www.education.vic.gov.au/school/principals/health/pages/socialemotion.aspx), and of course provides some of the basic thinking behind ‘KidsMatter’.
So, by this stage I was feeling a bit despairing, and fired off the names of several programs for which there is a strong evidence base, and that might have been heard of, like ‘Friends’ (http://pathwayshrc.com.au/friends-life-8-11-years/) or the Resourceful Adolescent Program (http://www.rap.qut.edu.au). Blank...
Now, look, I realise this may have been a new person, recently trained, (they didn’t sound like it), or perhaps they were in an environment that did not discuss these things (difficult to imagine). I have done many, many hours of presenting to individual schools’ staff, groups of school counsellors, school based youth health nurses, over many, many years. I have been to AGCA conferences (http://www.agca.com.au). I was part of a national committee for MindMatters, and later on the Evaluation Subcommittee for many years. At the end of the extended phone call, I was left speechless (pun intended). I was left deeply concerned for the welfare of the children at the school, and seriously worried about my post yesterday on this blog “Suicide in young people should never occur - Ever! So what should we do? (1 Facts and Figures and a challenge)” and the challenge to schools that I raised.
Am I spitting into the wind? Can schools ever manage to take on the training of resilience, optimism, and wellness necessary to provide a serious level of Mental Health Promotion capable of undermining depression and suicidality?
One issue is clearly about having staff members who understand the issues about the power of Mental Wellness to undermine development of ill health. A special issue is about counselling staff being in sufficient numbers to help schools understand these issues, and train them into all staff members.
And what about principals? I remember in our discussions during the emergence of MindMatters, that the program was ‘optional’. That is the school did not have to take it on. The decision seemed to be at the level of the Principal. Is this still the case? I do not know. I am not an educationalist; there is probably an immense amount about which I am ignorant. But let me put up a proposition... One side issue first...
I have become sick to death of all of the public newspaper and radio discussion about NAPLAN (http://www.nap.edu.au/naplan/naplan.html). I work with kids and adolescents in therapy. I have listened with concern to them all talking about how their whole school program seems to be taken up by training for NAPLAN, how stressed the teachers are about NAPLAN, how boring the whole NAPLAN exam is. I have discussed the issue with some teachers who resent the power of intrusion that NAPLAN has to disrupt the process of learning anything other than numeracy and literacy. Personally, I think this is bureaucracy gone mad trying to set up competition between schools in some vain effort to improve standards.
And it is all so back to front. It does nothing for suicide prevention. I suspect it ultimately does little for how future generations will lead their lives.
Can we develop a massive national bureaucracy to monitor how many schools have taken up any social and emotional wellbeing programs? Can we use that bureaucracy to measure and report on just what is being taken up, and just how well it is being taught? Could we ensure that every teacher and every counsellor in Australia is well versed in whatever the program, or programs are? Could we measure the emotional health and mental wellness and social skills of every young person in a school, and compare them year by year, and compare schools on the basis of how successful they were in developing Mental Health, and lowering anxiety, depression, bullying, and school dropout.
I believe we could turn Australia’s current pathway to disaster around, and begin to reduce negative outcomes from family abuse of all sorts. I believe we could give the young people in our charge, the best possible skills for the rest of their lives to avoid even the merest thought of suicide.
If the SEL research is correct, Australia would be able to compete successfully with any country in the world in terms of quality of education, and skills in all the so-called core subjects.
We could call the program something clever like WELLPLAN, or OPTIPLAN, or Schooling for Health, or MindfulEducationforLife.
For anyone remotely interested, the Seeking Solutions books are available from Family Concern Publishing (http://www.familyconcernpublishing.com.au), for the enormous cost of about $2.00 each (plus p&p, of course).
But then, if we had MindfulEducationforLife, no-one would be remotely interested such books, because Non-suicidal Self-injury (NSSI) might have been eradicated as well. Bad luck Graham...