In my second to last year at school, something funny happened – OCD came visiting and things started going wrong. Having always been profoundly geeky (I was more likely to be found in the library and enjoyed Maths and Physics more than was entirely normal), people should have been surprised when my grades started to slip and I began to skip lessons. And yet in a small school, I somehow slipped through the cracks and my behaviour went unmentioned. As things got worse and worse, my OCD became more and more obvious – I would spend entire lessons arranging my pens and copy out sentences again and again. I would tiptoe around the mosaic floors to avoid stepping on cracks and was paralysed by the idea of writing certain numbers. Alarm bells should have been ringing, sirens should have been sounding, and yet they didn’t.
It seems that this is a common thing to happen, and not just with OCD. I completed 15 years of schooling and never had a single lesson on mental health or mental illness. This isn’t normal. If, as the famous statistic says, 1 in 4 of us will suffer from a mental health problem at some point in our lives, surely being educated about it is not too much to ask?
One of the problems in increasing awareness of OCD and other mental health problems at school is how good we become at hiding it. In an ideal world, this wouldn’t happen – there would be no fear or shame of being honest about our experiences – but we are far from that. Education, awareness and a non-judgmental attitude to mental illness are essential – students need to feel that there is absolutely no stigma attached to admitting that they are struggling. I believe that it is possible to create a climate of open and honest commitment to improving mental health.
So back to OCD – what can teachers and other school staff do to help? Most of all – educate themselves. Learn as much as you can about OCD – whilst it’s impossible to ever fully catalogue the infinte number of different obsessions and compulsions that people suffer, they all follow very similar processes and understanding these is already a huge step to being able to help your student.
If you want to know how you can help your student, ask. It is essential to maintain effective and supportive communication between the school, the student with OCD, their parents and the mental health team coordinating the student’s care. There will be things that will help – maybe being a little more flexible with deadlines or allowing extra time in exams. The best way to offer effective support is to work on a plan together, as a team, and to update this plan continuously as the student progresses with their treatment.
As I’ve said a million times, OCD is hard work and CBT is tough. It is so, so important for the young person and their family to feel supported and encouraged – whether that means a phone call home to tell the parents about a particularly good day or a high five when the student stands up to a fear in the classroom. Teachers and schools can play a hugely important role in recovery from OCD, and the effect of their involvement should never be underestimated.
Obsessively compulsively yours,