Labelling young people: Should society change its approach towards supporting young people with Mental Health issues?
Date: Friday 27th January 2014
Venue: The Royal College of Psychiatrists
Mental illness has become more and more recognised to be as important as physical illness. More than half the UK's prescriptions for antipsychotics are for 'non-severe' mental illness and, whilst there are of course varying levels of mental illness, it is increasingly becoming a term that is used to explain the behaviours of young people.
It seems that 'mental health' has become the latest 'buzz word' and 'box-ticker' squeezed into every other line of applications, talks and lists of targets set out in society today.
Now, by no means should the frequency that the term is used decrease the value and importance of this subject - because Mental Health is a significant and worthwhile issue of concern. It does go without saying, however, that since every Tom, Dick, Harry has injected this 'golden phrase' into, well, anywhere it will fit into - there is a slight margin of scope to consider that some of our bandwagon mounters may not in fact be in the best position to actually be of use in this subject!
To us, Mental Health has always been a very real subject - but not one that has governed our teaching style or the way that we interact with other human beings. From the first day that Alan Dean walked into a Special Needs School, he has refused to seek out which disorders and experiences the young people he works with have had. Other teachers would say 'Mr Dean, you've got a bit of a tough bunch coming up after lunch, I suggest you read their files to clue yourself in!' Alan, however, passed on the offer and would simply say, 'No thanks, I'll make my own mind up about these kids - without going in with preloaded opinions and concerns'.
Alan's attitudes and approaches towards supporting young people through their teenage transitions has shaped the company that he has nurtured for the last two decades. The question remains, however, that since mental health has always been around, what's changed in society now to radically hype it up all of a sudden? Is society's approach towards supporting young people with mental health issues slacking and in need of change?
Social Science student, Alex Burnett, is passionate about supporting young people and has always wanted to work with them. After a few weeks work experience with Burning2Learn, Alex saw the positive impacts that our approach to learning was having on the lives of young people - not just on their education, but - more importantly - on the individual themselves. Alex was astounded and wanted to understand more about different approaches to supporting young people and went on to study at The University of Kent.
Whilst Alex believes that many of the current support networks for young people are effective, he questions the approach that most counselling providers offer young people. Alex states, 'Currently, we are outlining all the negatives and trying to address those, but nobody ever seems to talk about the positives'. Well, the absence of disease is not health and for Burning2Learn, it has certainly always been about developing the positive talents within young people.
We sought the opinions of a man with much wider and ranging knowledge on Mental Health, President of The Royal College of Psychiatrists, Professor Sir Simon Wessely. Should we be changing society's approach to supporting young people with mental illnesses? And if so, what to?
One response to this discussion might suggest that society should change its approach to supporting young people with mental health problems, due to the impacts that 'badging' a child can have on the individual. Professor Wessely commented that 'children do get a label of a disorder' and agreed that more thought should perhaps go into identifying 'how does that effect them?' Through our own work at Burning2Learn, we have seen many young people who have carried that badge around with them since the day they were given it, and this can have extremely negative impacts on self-esteem and confidence. In many cases, young people find it difficult to admit that they have a disorder to others, and this can of course prove to be very uncomfortable.
Further still, Professor Wessely also pointed out that it can be hard for parents too who are 'worrying about telling them (their child) they have a disorder'. As such, the negative impacts that 'badging' a child with a disorder can have on both the individual and their family could be used to support the view that society needs to change its approach in supporting young people with mental illnesses.
In contrast, Professor Wessely also spoke about the positive responses to identifying and labelling young people with mental illnesses that he has seen. He recalled many occasions where parents have been beside themselves with joy saying, 'finally it makes sense' and 'I no longer get blamed'. Professor Wessely's positive accounts of parents' responses may therefore be used to support the view that society does not need to change its approach to supporting young people with mental illnesses. Professor Wessely further reinforced this view as he talked of cases where 'they (young people) felt more authentic taking medication'.
As in any argument, there are varied views and responses to this discussion. Professor Wessely ended with the open view that 'diagnosis may come with baggage'. He stated that 'it's a question of balance' and admitted that 'treating children for problems they don't have is negative, and those are the cases that trouble me. We use diagnosis, do everything we can to get it right (good assessment) and remain alert to negative repercussions, but it's a judgement call and there's a huge responsibility that comes with that. So it's really important that people are aware of the pros and cons'.
The subject of styles and approaches to supporting young people is something which we at Burning2Learn are immensely passionate about - that's young people in general, by the way, not specifically those with mental illnesses. Alan has always said, 'it's about you the person, not you the piece of paper'. You may totally disagree with our approach and our views, and that's great! We'd love to hear anything you have to say on this matter because if there's anything that can enhance our techniques in helping young people, we'd be fools to miss it!