Children can’t always tackle problems alone – harnessing the power of their relationships can offer creative solutions
16 Sep 2019
Looking at relationships in the round and giving young people a safe space to communicate can mean a breakthrough in mental health, writes Place2Be’s Jonathan Wood
Call 3: “All children and young people should be able to, and know how to, get support with their mental health and wellbeing when they need it, without discrimination.”
Place2Be puts counselling and therapeutic support services into primary and secondary schools. We have a service dedicated to each school we work in – currently some 50 across Scotland – typically for 2.5 days a week. In that time, we offer a variety of supports to children, their parents and teaching staff.
Ours is a ‘whole school approach’ working with children, parents and teachers and it is key to our work that any child needing support goes through a thorough assessment and formulation process. This enables us to understand where in the system the problem actually lies. In many situations, we have learnt that, although a child may be experiencing levels of distress and anxiety, the roots of that distress might lie in their relationship with their peers, their teachers or at home. In such cases, an intervention offered to a parent or a teacher may be as useful as extensive work with the child.
When the words “mental health and wellbeing” are bandied about almost to the point of meaninglessness, our bottom lines are simple. It is okay to talk about what you are feeling. It is important that children’s services are on-site in places that children go to – schools being an obvious example. Interventions should occur early – when children ask for them and before the issues that they are facing become impacted. Support should be offered that is acceptable to the young person and has no stigma attached to it. To repeat the first point, it is OK to talk. Except of course… sometimes it’s not OK to talk.
When a 12-year-old boy told his parents he was being woken up by terrible dreams and his teachers reported that he was becoming withdrawn and unresponsive in class after a couple of years as top student, it was difficult not to think this was some kind of mental health issue.
"He was referred to CAMHS and in the long waiting time, to his GP, who prescribed an anti-depressant. No-one talked to him."
There seemed to be no obvious cause. No-one around him was victimising or bullying him. There had been no changes in his supportive and loving family. Perhaps this was the start of an adolescence that the boy seemed unable to navigate, and one that had taken everyone else by surprise. Added up, that surely meant he needed mental health support.
He was referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Support, and in the long waiting time, to his GP, who prescribed a mild anti-depressant. No-one talked to him. They felt out of their depth: better leave it to the experts. He was hard work, rude and defensive at best. At home there were tears and recriminations. At school, there were sanctions.
When Place2Be’s School Project Manager met the boy, he was no keener to talk to us than to anybody else. So instead, we arranged to meet with the important people in his life – his teachers and his parents. The teaching staff we met spoke about managing him in a busy classroom. They explained that sometimes he was so obstreperous that he had to be excluded from class.
They couldn’t understand it. He had been an A-grade student. From them we learnt more about the friends he had – mostly girls; the more extroverted, emotional girls. As they talked, they realised that he had been shunning his male peers. From his parents we heard that they were an orderly family. Everything had its place; there were right and wrong ways to do things; there were social norms that they aspired to – a good education, a good job, a good marriage. They had factored in adolescence, but this was beyond them. They too were out of their depth, therefore it was most likely a medical matter.
Opening up the discussion with teachers and parents, it was possible to introduce new ways of thinking about the challenging situation they found themselves in. All children are part of a complex system of relationships and any out-of-character behaviour might be best seen as a communication. The real challenge was to unpick whatwas being communicated, especially when the boy himself didn’t seem to know.
Could he be…? But his mother got there first. “Perhaps he’s gay.” Well, we don’t know that, but we might guess that there was some kind of identity crisis going on, whether to do with sexuality or gender or anything else. So, what to do? The boy was not ready to talk himself. In school, the teachers decided to forgo the option of exclusion – he already felt excluded. Instead, they re-arranged classes to function in smaller groups, ensuring he was in predominantly female groups, but with at least one other male they considered empathic.
His parents – challenged and frightened that their son might be different to their expectations – were prepared to look at themselves and their family narrative. They broadened out their view of a good life with a lot of statements along the lines of “relationships come in all shapes and sizes”. One day the boy himself knocked on the door of the Place2Be office. “I need to talk about some stuff,” he said.
Jonathan Wood is National Manager for Scotland for Place2Be.
He is responding here to Call 3 of our 25 Calls campaign, contributed by young people from our children and young people’s advisory group Changing our World.