I recently sat with a student for over an hour as they experienced a severe panic attack. It happened suddenly, we were attending an event where the students had to make a presentation in front of a large group of people. After the presentation the student was physically ill at first and then told me that he was finding it hard to breath.
We went out to get some air and the attack suddenly became worse. The student couldn’t catch his breath, his hands started to shake and his face went numb. As we sat there we began to chat between the waves of anxiety that were washing over this 16 year old child. He explained to me how his thoughts were racing and he couldn’t stop or control them. He told me that this happened quite a lot. He didn’t like leaving the house as he felt that people were looking “funny” at him. What was most shocking though was that he told me that this was normal and that he was used to it.
This experience should not be “normal” for anyone. The pain and suffering I experienced with this student is just one of many examples of how so many young people are struggling to cope with the demands of daily life and are struggling with their mental health.
As we continued to chat I noticed that the student started twisting and pulling at his hair. I asked if this comforted him, he said yes, that somehow he felt it gave him some comfort and control. As the panic attack began to subside, I asked the student what he thought we should do next to help him to cope better with what he was experiencing. He told me nothing, that he was used to it and that he didn’t want to worry his parents and be a bother for anyone.
This may seem shocking to many people, however unfortunately working with young people every day has taught me that this scenario is quite normal. I am no longer frightened when I witness a panic attack and I am not surprised when I see young people ashamed of their experience and try to cope alone in an attempt to conceal their suffering.
We hear the word stigma in relation to mental health a lot but often this becomes just another abstract term used by the media that most of us stop taking any notice of after hearing it thrown around on TV, radio and newspapers. However Stigma around mental health is causing personal suffering, self-harming and death. We need to work quickly to end this stigma and allow people to openly take control of their mental well-being.
There are many great organisations, working to reduce the stigma around mental health and to provide services for those who are suffering. I believe though that we must go further. Despite what statistics might tell us, everyone will experience some form of mental distress at some point in their lives. We need to allow our young people to explore and learn about the skills they can use to take control of their mental health.
The ideal place to do this is in our schools. At present school care teams are spending their time trying to deal with individual extreme cases as they arise. This is important work and vital to the well-being of the students involved but does not allow for a serious platform to educate all young people on how to manage their own emotional health. It is only by allowing young people the space in school to reflect and learn about mental health, as well as strategies for coping with the stresses that life will throw at them, that we can begin to really tackle this crisis.
As a teacher I am frustrated and the lack of opportunity in schools to reduce the suffering I see every day. Students should not be afraid to get the help they need because they fear what their family or friends might think. Young people should not be criticised or made to feel inferior for needing some help to cope with negative thoughts and experiences. I know I am not the only one frustrated with the current system. So over the next number of weeks I will be talking about a number of different topics such as suicide / self-harm, resilience, positive mental health, relationships and a lot more.