Friday, September 19, 2008

And whilst we're on the subject of Ignorance...

I recently attended a very boring and yet equally as interesting meeting for teachers involved in adult education. It was a compulsory thing for my friend, and I went along as her chauffer. There was much emphasis on completing paper work and carrying out risk assessments – if you’ve worked in education (or any public sector) you’ll know what I’m talking about. Before you ask, the buffet was naff.

There was a panel of various key figures who took it in turns to give a little introduction of their roles in the education service, followed by the usual “if you have any questions come and see me later” and “my number is in this leaflet” whilst waving bits of paper in the air. And then a lady stood up and said: “My name is Josephine Bloggs and my role is to make sure that adult education is accessible to people with physical disabilities or mental health problems”. That’s when the evening became interesting. She said that teachers obviously know about their own subject, but need to be taught how to cater for the needs of such ones.

Raising awareness in this way is something I would quite like to do – explaining what mental illness is and isn’t, a few do’s and don’ts, and how best to be supportive, that kind of thing – after all, they’re not training to become mental health nurses, so a lesson in biology is probably not required! I enquired about it later in the evening and although I was told that the CPT would be handling it, the lady took my number to pass on to another lady who would be directly involved in this. During our discussion there were a few points that sounded a little odd to me, and when/if the lady calls me I shall no doubt be asking for some clarification.

Firstly, I got the impression that there were specific courses for people with mental health problems, such as painting, dancing, yoga, “subjects that are therapeutic” as the lady put it. Are they suggesting that people with mental health problems can only benefit from “therapeutic” subjects and not academic ones? Do they assume that people with mental illness do not have the mental capacity to learn something more challenging?

Secondly, why are people with mental health problems being segregated by being given their own courses? Aren’t they just ordinary people like you and I?

Thirdly, I was told that one way I could help was by being a “buddy” for a mentally ill student. Please tell me that this is not a paid role. Do they think they need to enrol people to be friends with those with mental illness? How is the person expected to gain confidence in their own social skills if “buddies” are provided? How would you feel if you were assigned a “buddy”? Wouldn't you feel like they were saying “You're so awful no one will like you so we've asked someone to be your friend”?

These courses are designed for people with “mild to moderate” mental health problems. I have read that Schizophrenia is the most severe form of mental illness. So if this is how they view “mild to moderate” sufferers of mental illness, they must think Mr Man is a complete cabbage! So let me just clarify a few things about Mr Man…

  • His table tennis skills are improving all the time, which is one of the fastest thinking sports there is. He’d now like to train to become a coach.

  • He is very proficient in web design and computer programming, being able to program in at least 10 different programming and scripting languages, flash animations, and other things that I can’t even explain to you because I don’t understand it – all self taught.

  • He has an amazing comprehension of various forms of mathematics which I have never even heard of – again all self taught. He even created his own mathematical formula to work out the day of the week of any given date in history or in the future - which he can calculate in his head.

  • He has composed hundreds of pieces of music of many different styles.

  • Believe it or not he’s even made some new friends all by himself.

My teacher friend pointed out to me that although there are specific courses for people with mental health problems, anyone can enrol on any course. This is true, but only the teachers who are teaching the “therapeutic” courses specifically for the mentally ill are being trained to cater for the needs of those with mental illness - the other tutors merely received an information leaflet that was so general that it could apply to almost anyone whether they suffered from a mental illness or not. Who’s to say what is therapeutic? Yes, I would love to paint and dance and let the wind blow through my hair, but these things are not relaxing or therapeutic to Mr Man. (For those things, please see the list above)

I realise that not every person who suffers from a mental illness is like Mr Man, but I just feel the whole scheme is patronising at the very least. It would be much better for all teachers to be better educated about mental health issues as part of a national or even global campaign to reduce ignorance and stigma, and to start treating those with mental illness as ordinary people living with extraordinary illnesses, rather than continuing prejudice by treating them as something subhuman under the guise of being politically correct.

Still, it ticks all the right boxes so that they can receive their government funding.

Thank you to Mr Ian for providing this link for Mental Health First Aid.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Ignorance Breeds Ignorance

The BBC reports that in a study of 500 young people conducted by Great Ormond Street Hospital, almost half could not name a single mental health condition. Dr Jon Goldin, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at Great Ormond Street, said the results were both worrying and surprising. But are they? Are the results really that much of a surprise?

I confess; before it was suggested to me that Mr Man may be suffering from Schizophrenia, which in turn led to my own research, I had no idea what Schizophrenia was. Like most people I think I thought it was a split personality – I had no idea about delusions or hallucinations. Lack of knowledge probably explains the strange reactions I have had from others once they have realised my “plight”.

Ignorance is rife at all ages. No wonder then that many of the Google searches that lead to my blog are strange questions such as: “is a schizophrenic capable of love?”

Dr Jon Goldin continues: “This ignorance is probably one of the reasons why for too long now there has been a stigma attached to living with a mental health condition.” And I couldn’t agree more. People living with mental health problems are presumed to be unpredictable, violent, aggressive; you name it – anything other than ordinary people living with an illness, and these beliefs are largely fed by various types of media. How many people ask the question: “Is a person with Multiple Sclerosis capable of love?”? Or “Are people with Cancer violent?”? How many times do we see the headline “Murderer was Dyslexic”? Never. Does this mean that people with Dyslexia don’t commit murder? Of course not, but we wouldn’t dare stigmatise these people in such a way.

It is admirable that Great Ormond Street is responding to this need of information by adding a new section to their website Children First, dealing with mental health issues; but just as with this blog, I fear that only those who have an interest in mental health issues will access that area of the site, and believe it or not, there are still some children without internet access or the privacy to read information on such a sensitive issue.

Young people are often influenced by the attitudes of their parents and teachers before they reach their teens, and prejudices can already be ingrained by then. There needs to be more education for the general public and especially for parents and those who work with young people – firstly to avoid passing on such prejudices, and secondly because mental illness often first develops in adolescence and needs to be recognised for what it is. Mr Mans illness remained undetected throughout his teens, as his depressive behaviour was dismissed as being “normal teenage” behaviour.

No, there is no surprise at the lack of knowledge about mental illness by young people. Ignorance breeds stigma and further ignorance. Only knowledge breeds understanding and acceptance.