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How a Teenager Bunking Off School Got Me Interested in Youth Mental Health

A Mall suicide led our lead trainer to realise the importance of Mental Health awareness, but not in the way you might think…

Often, when I deliver Mental Health training around Cumbria and elsewhere, people ask me how I first got interested in the topic.

I tell them how important it is. I tell them that almost all of the statistics around adolescent mental health are going in the wrong direction at an alarming rate. I tell them about government targets and the like. But I also tell them about the incident that really kicked it all off for me.

Until 2014, I had a pastoral role in a large secondary school just outside London. The area the school served wasn’t quite as bad as some parts of London, but it was a long way from being leafy and middle-class. The student body came with more than their fair share of problems and, predictably, the bulk of those problems had to be dealt with by the school.

One day in the middle of the summer, one Year 10 student (14 or 15 years old) decided to skive (bunk? play truant? whatever the phrase is these days!?) school and head down to the local shopping centre.

The shopping centre was arranged around different levels, as most of them are, with balconies and high escalators overlooking a gap right in the middle where you could see down right from the top level (the car parks) the the floor of the very bottom.

Sadly, the day our student decided to visit was also the day that a man decided to end his own life. He went up to the top level and jumped off, falling three or four levels down and dying on impact with the ground floor.

He landed right in front of our student. So close, in fact, that our student was hit by some of the man’s blood as the injuries of the fall took their toll.

Naturally, the student in question found the whole thing extremely traumatic. We decided not to discipline him for truancy given what had happened, but he did have some quite significant other needs.

It was quite clear that he just wasn’t right, and it became clear in the days ahead that he wasn’t picking up. Something was clearly wrong.

We tried to get him to CAMHS, but were told that the service was too over-stretched to take a young person who wasn’t in clear danger.

The upshot was, it fell to us.

Myself and the boy’s Head of Year had no mental health training. I was a trained counsellor, but I really wasn’t used to dealing with complex psychological traumas. All I had was some general experience with young people, some basic common sense, and a few days of relevant CPD.

..and Google. I also had Google, and I leaned on it rather heavily.

From my counselling experience, I suspected that he had some sort of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, so I went online to find out firstly what PTSD looked like up close, and secondly how I might be able to treat it.

Anyone with any clinical training will immediately realise that I shouldn’t have been doing that. I was vastly out of my depth!

What’s more, at JRA Training we are constantly telling students not to Google things!

But the problem was, a few pastoral staff and their web browsers were really all there was.

Sadly, that’s quite often the issue where mental health is concerned – the statutory services don’t kick in unless there is a very imminent danger that a young person is about to harm themselves or somebody else.

In all other cases, there’s a fairly long wait, and in our case, that was just no good.

I used my counselling skills and the things I had learned online to talk to the boy and to help him through what had happened. Each time I saw him, he improved a little until eventually, after a few weeks, he was smiling and feeling a lot better.

I’m not sure how much I helped. Two our of every Three people with PTSD symptoms get better by themselves without direct interventions, so his improvement may well have been at least largely due to that. But that’s really not the point.

The point is that it showed me how little was there for young people experiencing poor mental and how important it is to roll out mental health awareness and Mental Health First Aid.

In the years that followed, I took a lot of training opportunities and did a lot of reading, until eventually I trained with MHFA England as an MHFA instructor.

There is a national aim to get Mental Health First Aiders in every school. Similarly, MHFA England would like to get ten percent of the whole population trained. They’re well on the way, and organisations like JRA training are playing their part.

John, Lead Trainer

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