Tackling mental health head on
Marie Nolan, student counsellor, Eamon Gaffney, principal, and Jimmy O'Connell, student counsellor at St Peter's school in Dunboyne, Co Meath. Photograph: Alan Betson
The Jigsaw project aims to bring mental health services to where the children and teenagers are, rather than wait for the most vulnerable to access help themselves, writes MARESE MCDONAGH
Between 2005 and 2007, a number of teenage students died by suicide in one small area of Co Meath.
For the health authorities, one of the most worrying aspects of the wave of tragic deaths was that not one of the teenagers, some as young as 13, had previously come to their attention. None was linked into the mental health services in the county and, according to Headstrong (the National Centre for Youth Mental Health), none had been identified by their schools as being particularly at risk.
Headstrong investigated and found that every town and community in the county had a small group of young people “ living on the edge”. They also found that there was a “a hidden population” of young people who rarely come to the attention of service providers but yet were probably among those most need of help.
As a result, the Jigsaw project was launched in Co Meath in 2009 in four post- primary schools and one youth centre . The focus of the initiative was on bringing mental health services to where the children and teenagers were , rather than wait, probably in vain, for the most vulnerable to access help themselves.
A key to the project was that psychologists from the HSE and National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) would be available to work with teachers, students and the wider community.
Teacher Jimmy O’Connell has a bird’s eye view of how badly many children need the interventions which have been introduced through the Jigsaw initiative.
The interventions are designed to help the entire student population negotiate burdens such as exam stress and bullying but crucially they also identify and help those students who are teetering on the edge.
A qualified psychotherapist, as well as a teacher, O’Connell is one of two counsellors at St Peter’s post-primary school in Dunboyne who is always available to the 1,000-strong student population. The issues they raise with him range from anxiety about exams to depression, family problems, relationship difficulties and suicide ideation.
He says most of the referrals are self-referrals, but other students and teachers also regularly alert him to those in trouble.
Some of the cases he encounters are horrifying. Referring to one boy who had talked to a friend about how he would take his own life, the teacher remarks: “It is more usual than you might think.”
That case was brought to his attention when the friend told her mother who in turn informed the school authorities what the student was contemplating. “When I asked him was it true what I had heard, the first thing I noticed was the relief on his face,” says O’Connell, adding that students who are in despair often can’t find the words to tell their parents or simply don’t want to worry them.