Taking note of red flags

Friday 05 April 2013 17.00
Students seem to be under greater emotional pressure
Students seem to be under greater emotional pressure

RTÉ's Education & Science Correspondent Emma O Kelly @emma_o_kelly speaks to teachers about their concerns at the rise in self-harm and suicide attempts among students

From the ASTI Convention in Wexford, we’ve heard a lot this week about Croke Park II, as well as teachers complaining about pay, conditions of work, and proposed reforms that they don’t agree with.

But teachers here have approached RTÉ News about another issue that is pressing on their minds; the great emotional pressure that an increasing number of their students seem to be under, especially in the past two years.

“I’ve been teaching for 34 years”, said one teacher, “and this is really scaring me”.

Second-level teachers know the nation’s teenagers probably more than any other adult grouping in society.

After parents, they are in many cases the most prominent adult in a child’s life. So when they raise a red flag, we need to take note.

The teachers I spoke to are mostly Year Heads and Guidance Counsellors. They spoke on condition of anonymity. None of them wishes to publicly highlight difficulties faced by adolescents in their own schools.

One, from a fee paying school, told me there had been five attempted suicides in her school in the past 18 months. These were all senior cycle pupils.

Another, from a large mixed urban school, spoke of seven attempted suicides in recent times, mostly among Junior Cycle pupils, and also a rise in incidents of self-harming.

Teachers told me that self-harming can range from students cutting themselves, to pupils constantly, and painfully, plucking hairs out of their head during class.

One teacher said these actions were a response from teenagers who were in difficulty but unable to verbalise it.

She felt cutting was a cry for help from students who, perhaps subconsciously, wanted someone to notice and help them.

The teachers I spoke to said there was no simple cause for what they feel is a rise in this behaviour.

They said the financial pressure bearing down on many families was certainly a factor, placing family relationships under great strain. This was having a huge impact on children.

One teacher, from a mostly working class medium sized school, said the financial crisis was having an especially detrimental impact on working class boys.

Boys who may have hoped to become apprentices, or join the army, or the Fire Brigade had seen their future opportunities “just gone”.

These teachers spoke too of social anxieties suffered by their pupils; insecurities about how they looked, about a lack of friends, about feeling different.

They worried about the role of social media such as Facebook in reinforcing such feelings.

Another teacher spoke to me of the hugely traumatic impact of a recent suicide by a pupil on teachers at his all boys large provincial school.

“I am completely consumed by it”, he said, “it’s the first thing you think of every morning”. He said the relationship between teachers and their students was often nearly like a father son relationship.

“When you go in and see the empty chair.... its rough”, he said.

This teacher complained that there seemed to be no mechanism to support teachers traumatised by suicide in this way.

Schools are struggling to cope with supporting students. They say cuts, such as to Guidance Counsellor allocations, don’t help.

But teachers are most keen to stress that regardless of this they are available and keen to support any student who feels they need it.

Many described situations where they went very far out of their way to do so.

The teachers I spoke to urged any young person facing difficulties to not be afraid to speak to any teacher in their school.

There are many websites and organisations that can support young people in difficulty.

They include SpunOut.ie and The Samaritans.

The Samaritans are at 1850-60-90-90.