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Public education on mental health
I'm a year 12 student with four months left of high school. In the last six years mental illness has touched me and my friends in a way that I can't forget. In particular, I've a friend who has Borderline Personality Disorder. For the most part of last year (when we were in year 11) the situation was on a knife edge. Her multiple suicide attempts and overdoses made it hard to deal with the surface stuff e.g: the pressure and stress that already come with VCE. I think the last straw was really September last year when she publicly announced a suicide note on facebook with all of our names tagged in it, and then went missing. They found her at Flinders Street station, unharmed. After that she was un-enrolled from school because she was too ill. Nonetheless life has been much better for us all since last year, as there is a degree of distance and we know that the right people are looking after her.She is now at TAFE but she is by no means out of struggle street yet. She made another suicide attempt last week.
In any case, that isn't what I'm here to talk about. For months after this incident I have wanted to speak publicly and educate the school community about mental health. However, I haven't had much luck at all. You see, not long after what happened to our friend and right before the end of year exams, a boy in the year above us committed suicide. It was tragic; really horrible. At the funeral I couldn't help but feel angry that something like this had to happen before people realised the implications of depression and mental illnesses. It could have been my friend. It could have been anybody in our school community.
At the beginning of 2013 I tried to organise a chapel presentation but we were barred from speaking. I know that the school community was and is still grieving, but that is all the more reason why I wanted to bring the topic of mental health to the fore of discussion. The school prefers to deal with it in more subtle ways - they are constantly informing us of the benefits of "mindfulness" and caring for each other. I'm also aware that a lot of work is done under the radar with students who have mental health needs. I think that all of these measures are great, and I'm also very much aware of how mental illness can be quite a sensitive topic - but surely there is a place for public discussion of mental health with student initiative?
I guess I'm asking you all a question. Is mental illness better tackled on a less public level? The teachers and admin were trying to protect us from any implications that could have resulted from our public address. They told us that schools consist of a whole range of age groups, with different stages of development and needs, and we can't afford to risk anyone taking our message 'the wrong way". I can appreciate that, but in each of these demographics there are people who are suffering. Surely there are people out there who are in the same situation as my friends and I were, but with no knowledge of what to do? there is so much that I wish that i knew, in retrospect, about how better to take care of myself and my friends. I wish I could tell others about my experiences, so that they perhaps don't feel so alone. How could one address a school publicly about mental health from a student's perspective?
I have talked to those in school authority and I've made a bit of headway, but somehow i don't feel it is enough. The Head of Wellbeing says that he is trying to get in a speaker from Beyond Blue this year, but with school bureaucracy and tight schedules it is more likely to be next year. I suppose this is still a positive thing, because even if i'm not there to see the benefits, I'm leaving a legacy of sorts. Also, the school psychologist ( who actually knows me very well now....) wants me to help out with "mindfulness sessions", the details of which I'm not too sure about, but we're meeting on Wednesday to catch up and hopefully discuss it. Overall, these measures are very good, but I still feel like my purpose hasn't been fulfiled. I feel like there is no student involvement, because they don't trust our initiative regarding these matters and because we are young and inexperienced. Perhaps the Head of Wellbeing would have organised a speaker without my input. Perhaps the school psychologist doesn't really need my help with these sessions and the ministry centre is just trying to appease me so that i will shut up about it. I try not to think about it in that way, though.
I want to speak publicly, somewhere, somehow. i have a voice and a story, and words coming from a fellow peer perhaps are more pertinent than somebody a little older. I don't know, maybe my needs are also personal. I need people to know that what happened was real, and I want them to understand what it was like so that if they are ever confronted with a situation like that, or if they ever see a situation like that from the outside, perhaps they will be able to empathise a little better.
Generally I just want to know the consensus of how to go about mental health education on a public scale . I think I came to the right website to get that kind of information. I want to know if there is even a small way I could impact my school community in a positive way before I graduate, or even after I graduate. I feel like I've left unfinished business that i can't just ignore.
Cool name!! 😄
I was school chaplain at my local (state) high school 2009-2012, and am a teacher by training. (I'm training for ministry to be a "proper chaplain" now.)
I presume from your use of "VCE" that you are in Victoria, which I am not, but I guess similar stuff is available for you as for me.
1. As much as it's your Year Twelve, and practically July, good on you for making noise about this. Keep it up, with respect of course.
2. If you have teachers who are interested there is a lot of information/resourcing that they can access. Again reading your story I presume your school has a chaplain, although it seems in your case he/she would be a proper clergy person and perhaps with a denominational rather than a pastoral care agenda. You do have a Head of Wellbeing so that's great. Things like "Wesley Suicide Prevention" courses, the brilliant "MindMatters" set of resources which every school in Australia should have sets of, and the "SenseAbility" stuff that beyondblue puts out on wellbeing and happiness are all good. The key, I found, was awareness and T+D for teachers/classroom assistants, and a good referral strategy to chaplains/counsellors and through to GPs and Dept of Ed. Social Workers.
3. Again reading you I presume you're a K-12 school and not just secondary, so the teachers are keen that you don't scare the 5 year olds? That's a good point, and perhaps a whole school assembly is not the best forum, but surely there are Key Stage or Year Level Assemblies, or pastoral care or RE lessons? Using the resources I mentioned above with K-3, 4-7, 8-10, 11-12 grades could be a helpful way to do it. You are very perceptive that your community is grieving and in need of help, in the specific case of "that boy" his friends and others in the school affected by grief might benefit from "Seasons For Growth" which is a recovering with grief course. Again it's available in four/five age groups, plus adult.
Remember that grief is part of life, so even without suiciding classmates in even a small school someone's always recently lost a Nana, or a kitten, or had their parents divorce or their best friend move to Perth. In my school in 2012 we had 770 kids and 40 at a certain point had lost a parent to death or divorce within the past six months. We also lost a teacher to suicide in 2009, and a Year-12 graduate to a road accident in the last week of school in 2011. (So after exams but before results, and while grades 8-11 were still studying). Both had funerals at school, assisted by me as chaplain but lead by the (militant atheist) principal. At least he (principal) saw the issue of grief and had Seasons for Growth running in four areas of the school, me running two of them, Special Ed running the other two.
3. Access the beyondblue stuff, fact sheets and that. Again this could be you, or the Housemasters, or the school psych. There are "young people" sheets specifically on grief.
4. Perhaps the school pastoral care team (psych, chaplain, Heads of House, Head of Wellbeing?) might be encouraged to set aside a "Wellbeing Space" with fact sheets, maybe a tin of Milo (and urn and cups!!), and someone adult (even a prefect) to "be there". I did this, with a few tealight candles and some "whale fart music" as one of my regulars called it. We also had our Seasons for Growth talking/reflective sessions in there. You might like to call it the "Serendipity Room". 😉
I hope that helps. In answering your key question there is a place for public discourse, as I have exampled above, but the concerns of the school to be age-appropriate are ones I know you understand. And of course any public stuff must be done with a private, 1:1 or maybe 1:5 arrangement of "extra help" either for people in need, or for the few students who might want to be helpers or mentors for the school community.
I wish I had had you at my school, but then I wish I worked at yours too. 🙂
I think you've done spectacularly, and should refocus your efforts on your VCE. You can pick up where you left off after you graduate, or even dedicate your career to it if you choose.
wow, what a beautifully well written post !
If your Year 12 work is anything as articulate as your post here, then I am sure you will get the ATAR score you are looking for and excel after you leave high school
I agree with your school that making this topic too public may upset some students. It may scare them. It may even cause a copycat effect.
But I don't see anything wrong in you asking the school to run some workshops. You could definitely run them, so long as they don't interfere with your study.
They could be advertised for anyone who ticks any of the boxes (you could put together some bullet points on the flyer, symptoms of depression etc)
At these workshops, you could run through a few fact sheets from this website.
Or hand them out. You could tell your story. You could make the people who attend realise it is real.
You could go back once a term after you leave Year 12 to run these workshops, if you had time
Good luck in what ever you decide.
Take care 🙂
Great idea Kellie. This should be implemented at every school everywhere.
dear Serendipity, whow, a lovely post, and a well thought out way of trying to teach the awareness of depression and suicide.
I believe that you are trying to do the right thing, because this illness must be educated and aware to those kids growing up.
This illness doesn't preclude your school, and that's shown by the unfortunate suicides that have occurred, so the school shouldn't be dogmatic in not allowing information to be raised.
I wonder how many other kids and even teachers are suffering from this silent illness, I'm sure there would be a lot, that's why it has to educated at school.
OK the different levels should be taught about depression in their appropriate class level, just like young kids aren't taught calculus, or physics, they don't have learning abilities to understand these, so just the basic form of depression like parents splitting up or getting divorced and being bullied, and so it progress's up to suicide in the last year.
This is a very mature approach and you should be applauded.
I wonder whether the ' school bureaucracy and tight schedules it is more likely to be next year' are just saying this because you may not be there, and procrastinating this important issue, but it still has to be taught. Let us know if any more happens. Geoff.