SecondaryHealth & Wellbeing

Student mental health – Be wary of ‘expert’ interventions

Stick figure drawing of upset figure sat in a chair, representing poor student mental health

An increased sensitivity to matters of wellbeing in schools has invited problematic ‘solutions’ peddled by bad actors, warns John Lawson

John Lawson
by John Lawson
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SecondaryHealth & Wellbeing

The social media platform ‘X’, formerly Twitter, occasionally throws up posts that prompt a change in our mindset. So it was was when I saw an astute educator recently share the modern aphorism that ‘Hurt people, hurt people.

Some traumas and challenges are inescapable. Most of us really aren’t okay every day. Extremely challenging children (and sometimes even teachers) will occasionally lash out because they’re suffering. This is why we should sensitively disciple students, rather than harshly punish them.

We’ll rarely know the full story in every case. However, we do know that lengthy or permanent exclusions can further hurt some already severely hurt children.

Student mental health

What we can’t always address in lessons we can often resolve elsewhere within the school system. I’ve found that some of the wisest counsellors in schools will frequently be non‐teaching staff.

But at the same time, if we insist on trying to address and heal every hidden hurt experienced by our students, there’s the risk of schools turning into poorly-equipped mental health hubs of hubris.

In my experience, many teen problems tend to be transitory. Student often resolve them within their peer groups. When molehills become mountains, our doors should remain open. And when we can’t resolve problems ourselves, most of us know of kindly souls who perhaps can.

Since retiring from full-time teaching I’ve been able to connect with stressed ECTs seeking support via social media.

However, one downside of leaving my direct messages open has been the deluge of approaches from assorted traders promising to make me rich, while making me much poorer in the process of showing me how.

Among the most persistent of these individuals has been a bullish academic coach. They called me an ‘old-fashioned refusenik’ for failing to recognise the power of his meta-mystical approach to student mental health interventions.

All is not lost,’ he counsels, because he can save my soul for the bargain sum of £2,000 while teaching me how to salve teenage angst. I’ll also receive ‘mental health expert’ certification in ‘No time at all!

Really? His persistent sales pitches certainly aren’t helping my mental health. And in any case, as a self-proclaimed ‘internationally accredited wellness coach’, he should surely know that teaching isn’t ‘all about relationships’ – because it’s rarely ever that simple.

Selling problems and solutions

The most effective advertising has always been that which simultaneously sells us both a problem, and the solution to that problem. You’re too fat, too thin, too tall or too short. You’re too talkative or excessively shy. Unfulfilled or unattractive. We go through life blissfully unaware of our debilitating maladies, until the latest guru ‘expertly’ projects their expensive cures onto them.

My social media messiah and his crack team of rapid response ‘mental health experts’ profess to being eager to visit schools and identify problems that require expert interventions – but can you imagine how many teenagers we might unsettle by encouraging them to take deep dives into the ‘black boxes’ of their mental health? Will our ‘experts’ keep probing and encouraging ‘deeper reflections until a productive pipeline is exposed, thus justifying their expensive services?

What if the children fabricate stories against wholly innocent peers or adults? Are schools ready to conduct follow-ups in the event of this initiative ‘successfully’ unearthing multiple complex problems, when most still can’t afford even entry level examples of such services?

Partners in parenting

Growing up, my peers were assaulted daily by assorted adults in positions authority. The way (most) of us resisted lifelong Weltschmerz was by using our natural talents to make something of our imperfect lives. Our troubles often inspired us to become the supportive adults that we had rarely encountered ourselves.

That schools are now acutely conscious of their students’ mental wellbeing is to be commended – but for their sake, let’s continue to tread carefully, and with humility. We need to work as partners in parenting with families.

Underfunded and overstretched schools can’t be expected to solve every societal problem independently. Our primary mandate is to educate by teaching hearts and, yes, sometimes troubled minds. Because it’s often the case that empowering students, and getting them excited and optimistic about their futures, can be the most productive and holistic way forward.

John Lawson is a former secondary teacher, now serving as a foundation governor while running a tutoring service, and author of the book The Successful (Less Stressful) Student (Outskirts Press, £11.95); find out more at prep4successnow.wordpress.com or follow @johninpompano

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