Richie Sadlier on teenage boys and men­tal health

Psy­chother­a­pist and for­mer pro foot­baller kicks off his monthly col­umn with how to help young men in Ire­land

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Richie Sadlier

‘W‘‘ They want to know they’re not alone in think­ing the way they do about their place in the world. Oth­ers are go­ing through some­thing sim­i­lar

hat’s this topic all about?” I asked a class­room of Tran­si­tion Year stu­dents. I was there to speak about men­tal health and I was cu­ri­ous to hear their thoughts. I fig­ured it would be use­ful to know their views be­fore I launched into ex­plain­ing a thing.

It’s mainly about sui­cide and de­pres­sion, they said. “So why do ye think I’m here?” I fol­lowed up. “Why is a sub­ject like this in your timetable now?”

“You’re here to stop us killing our­selves.”

It was the most mem­o­rable an­swer of the many they gave, but it was con­sis­tent with most of the oth­ers. The gen­eral per­cep­tion was that dis­cussing this topic in­volved dis­clo­sures of prob­lems and fail­ings. They fig­ured my job was to root out the men­tally ill. They pre­sumed it would be all about men­tal dis­or­ders, self-harm and sui­cide. All the re­ally neg­a­tive stuff.

Three years ago, I went back to my old school, St Be­nil­dus Col­lege in Kil­macud, of­fer­ing my­self for any men­tal health-re­lated work they thought might be class­room-ap­pro­pri­ate. I was prac­tis­ing psy­chother­apy and was drawn to the area of ado­les­cence. I be­gan with a 90-minute talk with each of the five Tran­si­tion Year groups. Within a year, it evolved into a six-week mo­d­ule which I de­liver ev­ery Fri­day morn­ing. Quite apart from any­thing the stu­dents get from it, it’s one of the high points of my own work­ing week.

But lads wouldn’t be into a topic like this, surely? There’s no way 16-year-olds would pay at­ten­tion to that? This is what I hear when I speak about the mo­d­ule, but the op­po­site is the case. It’s re­ally not hard to get teenagers to be in­ter­ested in them­selves.

I ask them at the out­set what they’d most like to achieve. Some want to feel more con­fi­dent and be less awk­ward. Oth­ers would love to be less self-con­scious and more com­fort­able speak­ing to girls. And also to adults. Some want to have bet­ter con­trol of their tem­per. They’d like to be able to make a mis­take in a match and know how to put it be­hind them. Oth­ers want to be less im­pacted by slag­ging or crit­i­cism and to han­dle their par­ents bet­ter. And some just want to be hap­pier.

They never say this, but they want to know they’re not alone in think­ing the way they do about them­selves and their place in the world. That oth­ers are go­ing through some­thing sim­i­lar. Ul­ti­mately, they’re look­ing for sup­port and guid­ance at a time when it’s badly needed.

Once the right at­mos­phere is cre­ated, we get to work. Noth­ing is off the ta­ble in class dis­cus­sions. We ex­plore what mas­culin­ity means to them and how it im­pacts their be­hav­iour. They’re grow­ing up in a coun­try that em­braces in­tox­i­ca­tion, so we look at how they’re in­flu­enced by that. They mea­sure their emo­tional in­tel­li­gence and come up with ways they might en­hance it. We cover is­sues as var­ied as porn, drink, sui­cide, ther­apy and drugs. My job is just to fa­cil­i­tate. They do all the work. Oc­ca­sion­ally a stu­dent will be­gin see­ing a guid­ance coun­sel­lor hav­ing learned it’s per­fectly ac­cept­able to do so. Some­times I be­gin work­ing with one of the lads and their par­ents in my own prac­tice. Rarely, but it does hap­pen, there’s an in-class dis­clo­sure of some­thing that needs to be re­ferred to a so­cial worker. In all such cases, though, the stu­dents re­ceive the sup­port they re­quire all along.

There are many schools that are just as proac­tive when it comes to stu­dents’ well­be­ing. They know the ben­e­fits of early in­ter­ven­tion in an area as rich as this. There are still many, how­ever, who don’t.

Re­duce anx­i­ety

The day be­fore I was due to go into a par­tic­u­lar school two years ago, I got a call from a teacher apolo­get­i­cally pulling the plug. I had been in­vited to speak to the sixth-year stu­dents on the gen­eral topic of men­tal health. The teacher fig­ured they would ben­e­fit from know­ing how to re­duce lev­els of anx­i­ety and stress.

How­ever, the prin­ci­pal had a look at the ma­te­rial I planned to cover and he was hav­ing none of it. Ap­par­ently he didn’t want things to “de­scend into a f***ing coun­selling ses­sion”.

Three months shy of their Leav­ing Cert, he fig­ured the last thing they needed was me com­ing in to rock the boat. You’d think a con­ver­sa­tion that pro­motes self-care and help-seek­ing be­hav­iours is ex­actly what lads in their po­si­tion needed. That wasn’t his view, though. They were big enough now and should be able to han­dle the pres­sure.

Men­tal health is about a lot more than de­pres­sion and sui­cide, par­tic­u­larly among ado­les­cents. That may be the fo­cus it gets in much of the na­tional me­dia, but in a class­room of teenagers it can be about so much more. When han­dled ap­pro­pri­ately, it opens stu­dents’ minds to car­ing for their own well­be­ing in ways that were tra­di­tion­ally seen as off-lim­its. And no­body should be in op­po­si­tion to that.

Some schools don’t have the re­sources or the in­cli­na­tion to go near a topic like this, but the short- and long-term ben­e­fits are ob­vi­ous to those that do. If teenage boys can em­brace this sub­ject the way they do in St Be­nil­dus, then school prin­ci­pals through­out the coun­try have no ex­cuse.

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: JUANMONINO/IS­TOCK

Talk­ing it out: ■ It’s re­ally not hard to get teenagers to be in­ter­ested in them­selves.

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