Continuing my completely coincidental and unplanned return to old haunts last week I found myself in Doon Academy in Dalmellington, where I spent three very interesting, productive and happy years as a young (and very naive) Principal Teacher of English in the early 1980s. This time around I was talking to Patrick – the headteacher and an old friend – about their experiences over the last couple of years of building their curriculum around health and wellbeing, and in particular their decision to take on board a mental health nurse as a key member of staff. The experiment had proved to be an outstanding success as the staff tried to develop the good relationships between staff and pupils, and to build confidence in young people for whom low self-esteem and lack of ambition had become almost endemic.
The former mining town is one of the most deprived in Scotland, according to official statistics, although the headteacher shuns the term “multiple deprivation” as too euphemistic, preferring instead to talk about the “grinding poverty” which stacks the odds against many of his pupils long before they even reach school. None of this is obvious however as you go around the school and the colourful wall displays give you some idea of the range of activities going on here and the sense of pride in what they are trying to achieve. There is a really positive atmosphere, a sense that these young people are going places, which many more of them now are – the number going into further education for example has risen dramatically over the past couple of years.
Karen, the mental health nurse, speaks with enthusiasm about the young people’s willingness to share their experiences with her, and about the importance of the relationships she has built up since coming to the school. One of the approaches she uses recognises the significance of writing in relation to mental health, and allowing young people to tell their story (literally) as a means of moving on and developing. This took me back to a piece of writing which Stephanie, a former pupil of mine, wrote a number of years ago and which I still have. Stephanie was in a “foundation” English class (already clearly labelled!) and rarely wrote anything, but on this occasion she was writing about loneliness. I present it exactly as it was written:-
I still remember the time I was lonely at the summer hols. I was with Jamie, Alan, Claire, T and James. We were playing spin the bottle. The bottle stopped at T. I can’t remember what she had to do but I sat there. I was cold and lonely. Everyone was around each other. I was in a world of my own, a lonely a lonely world sometimes now and then I still do get very lonely at times, but sometimes it is hard.
I can remember the first time I was lonely I was in my bed one day off school with the cold. My mum and dad went away to work and left me in the house myself. I was feeling really lonely so I phoned my pal Hazel. She has left school and she came round for a few hours. I still felt a bit loney but not as much.
You don’t have to be on your own to be lonely you can be surrounded by people 24/7 and still feel lonely. Pop starts are sometimes lonely on there tour and on stage but they are all surrounded by people how can they get lonely then? They have feelings like us too. Everyone gets lonely. Does matter who you are now and then you will get lonely if you like it or not, it is apart of growing up.
As things stand, the funding for Doon Academy’s mental health nurse comes to an end soon, and the headteacher is spending a considerable amount of time and energy looking for alternative funding sources. It’s an all too familiar story in these days of diminishing resources, but in this particular case it’s an investment which could not be more critical.
Read more about the Doon Academy experience by visiting the wiki at http://doonsoa.wetpaint.com