Working with a student who is battling a mental health crisis can take an often-overlooked emotional toll on teachers, writes Karen Casey.
A YOUNG man arrives in class with great sadness in his eyes, again; a girl breaks down in the school foyer and is taken away by ambulance; a boy is restrained by teachers after experiencing a frightening psychotic episode.
These are brief accounts of real mental health incidents that do happen in schools. They are a disturbing reality, and an issue that school communities are working hard to counter. But with the focus firmly on the student’ wellbeing, as it should be, the effect such incidents have on teachers is often forgotten. Brian Burgess, president of the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principles, knows all too well the impact that students mental health has on teachers.
“It can be quite devastating for teachers,” Mr Burgess says. “Teachers put a lot of emotional energy into students. Witnessing a mental health crisis in a student is one of the worst things you can have happen. You wonder what you could have done to change. Sometimes you new and you were working with the kid, and sometimes you didn’t know.
“I have experienced a couple of suicides over the years. They are the extreme cases. Suicide impacts quite awfully on the whole school community. Even if you don’t know the student directly, you know their friends,” he says.
One in four young people will experience a mental health issue in the next 12 months, according to research and training organisation Orygen Youth Health. In Australia, 20-25% of people aged 12 to 17 have mental disorders, making secondary school one of the prime times for such problems to develop.
“There is a lot of pressure on kids,” Mr Burgess continues. “They are struggling with who they are and where they are going. Schools are being asked to do an enormous amount, in terms of supporting students. But the reality is, they [teachers] see the kids most of the day. If a kid is depressed they are going to see it.”
Ballarat High School acting principle Gary Palmer has seen many students battle mental health problems during his career. At a previous workplace this included four critical incidents within a short space of time. Two of them were suicides. Mr Palmer has also seen many other students suffer anxiety, depression and eating disorders.
Mr Palmer said it was reasonable for teachers to need time out. They may be saddened to see students suffer or feel a sense of guilt for not seeing a problem earlier. For some teachers critical incidents may dredge up their own past experiences, and for others it may add to existing personal problems of their own.
“I still think teachers are affected very much emotionally,” Mr Palmer says. “I have worked with colleagues who have had kids of their own with mental health issues. They come to school with that and have to deal with issues at school.
“A teacher can’t just go for a walk when they feel like it, and sit in a quit place to think about things. Suddenly the bell goes and they have to go and teach. Sometimes I think there is a lack of understanding of the teaching profession. I don’t think the community has an awareness and an understanding of what a teacher’s roll is. I would probably say my wife doesn’t have an understanding of what I do. It’s not being critical. It’s the same as I don’t fully understand what a doctor does. I think sometimes there is a high expectation of teachers. It’s a very demanding job. I think teachers do deliver well. I think they do a terrific job.”
Psychotherapist David Nugent says he developed a new respect for teachers after beginning work with children in schools in Melbourne’s south east. He said poor mental health manifested in children in many ways, the most common being angry and disruptive behaviour. Teachers were often the ones who had to deal with this in the classroom, but without the knowledge and skills of a psychologist.
“Teachers are not psychologists,” Mr Nugent says, “their job is to teach. It’s tough for them to understand the severity of what’s happening. It’s a realisation for some teachers that their life is sheltered compared to some of these children.”
Mr Nugent says while the behaviour of a child with underlying issues is often difficult to handle, a better understanding of mental health problems would help teachers cope with the day-to-day impact of such issues in the school environment. He believes the secret is in the way teachers interact with students.
“I have seen teachers give up on classes and they’ve asked to change allotments,” Mr Nugent says. “I’ve seen teachers break down emotionally and take it [student behaviour] personally. Teachers struggle just like some of these kids struggle.
Kids who are suffering some sort of depression or anxiety generally cover it up with this anger and bad behaviour. Sometimes we just need to fall back a little and understand that there might be something more going on with this kid. If this kid is suffering from depression his pressure cooker is just boiling up.
“I think sometimes there is a high expectation of teachers. It’s a very demanding job.”
“Talk about it away from the class,” Mr Nugent advises.” They have their friends watching and they might show off so don’t give them that advantage. I know it’s hard for teachers because they have 20-odd kids. They can take the child aside and say I want to talk to you later.”
Mr Nugent says it is also important not to fall into a ‘power and control struggle’. Although he did not condone the way some students treat teachers, biting back in a similar way was unlikely to help. “I talk to the kids the way I like to be spoken to,” Mr Nugent says. “They tend to open up and we get somewhere. Rather than look at the behaviour as a challenge to your authority think about what’s going on with the kid. Don’t assume it’s about disrespect or rudeness.”
With experience behind her, Fountain Gate Secondary College principle Vicki Walters will often see when students’ behaviour is more than simple teenage cheek. But she said teachers were trained educators, not psychologists, so expert help was needed for the benefit of students and teachers alike.
Ms Walters says since having Mr Nugent at her school two days a week, improvements were obvious. “I have one young man at the moment who has had bursts of anger and at other times he is just really sad,” Ms Walters says. “He sees no joy in life. It’s serious. It’s not just him feeling a bit down.
“With a child being here at school six to seven hours a day, we play a significant part in their lives. I do think we need to be involved. I think sometimes staff feel overwhelmed and powerless that they don’t have the skills and knowledge. For your average teacher in the classroom, it’s a big ask. That’s where a teacher has to know that there are other experienced people in the school. Even though teachers are trained people I think there is still more training and support needed. Having our own psychotherapist, teachers get the knowledge as to why kids behave this way and how they can have more positive interaction with these children,” she says.
Strong and trusting relationships may lead to students getting the help they need. But Ms Walters warns against teachers trying to tackle mental health issues alone. She says they needed to ask for and accept expert help. Trying to solve problems alone can be unhelpful and dangerous.
“Teachers will often try to fix it when they don’t have the skills to do that,” Ms Walters warns. “They work on their emotions. I have one staff member who would get very emotionally involved. They’d had a torrid time as a youngster themselves. It’s not helpful for the child and it’s not helpful for the teacher.
“I had a situation years ago where a girl was obsessed with exercise and what she ate. It’s because of my own experience as a home economics teacher that I was able to bring it to the parent’s attention. I’m well aware of how anorexia presents.
“At the time it was very stressful. The girl refused to come to school. It got to crisis point in the front foyer and we had to call an ambulance. She broke down. That was very difficult. Now she’s had treatment she is back on track. She has her life in balance.”
Mr Burgess described a teacher’s role as a “red flag business”. Because of the extended time they spend with students, they are likely to see changes in mood, behaviour and standard of work. Teachers are also in a good position to alert the right people, whether they be counsellors or family members. But just as importantly, teachers need to look after their own mental health. Debriefing after a critical incident is a must, as is seeking support from other teachers and welfare staff.
“We had an incident where police were involved,” Mr Nugent says.
“This kid was off the rails a bit and running around and collapsing and getting out of the school. A lot of the teachers were upset by it. You need to be able to just debrief and talk about whatever it is that happened. It can become a runaway train otherwise. By talking it out, you can alleviate some of that.”