The Future of Education in Severe Youth Mental Health

The Need for More Support Schools

If there were more Support Schools for young people with severe and complex mental health issues, the demand for places in the Extended Treatment Facility to be built in the grounds of Prince Charles Hospital at Chermside would be diminished. During its thirty years in operation, the Barrett Adolescent Centre’s (closed in January 2014) waiting list indicated the ongoing need for such an inpatient service and, sadly, levels of high or very high psychological distress among those aged 18-24 and suicide rates among those aged 15-25 continue to rise. There are only positive outcomes if every young person in Queensland at risk of deterioration to the point that extended inpatient care becomes the only way to halt their decline is able to access a school that supports their particular needs while they remain in their own community with continuity of clinical care:

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  • Young people and their families/carers benefit from effective education and health services which are more likely to lay the foundation for productive adult lives.
  • The expense to the taxpayer of lifelong intensive health and welfare support (for both patient and carer) and greater demand on comprehensive extended inpatient treatment is circumvented.
  •  Increasing services for sufferers of mental health issues promotes greater understanding across communities and helps to reduce the stigma that still adds such a significant burden.
  • And, because this issue is all about young people at the most vulnerable end of the mental health spectrum, lives are genuinely saved.

APPROACH TO EXPANSION

Ways to expand the Support School Service most effectively need to go beyond simply finding locations and allocating staff. There must be cohesion and interaction between campuses to enable the sharing of expertise and assignment of individual students to the best location/staff/student group to suit their unique needs. In addition, this service component must have the profile throughout the Queensland Education system that will ensure that referrals can be made as soon as they are required – not just every Guidance Officer but all educators must be aware that Support Schools are in operation and referral guidelines must be easily accessible. If a unique and vital resource has been, albeit inadvertently, developed, it cannot be allowed to remain ‘under the radar’. Now that the Education service providers are aware that the need exists, everything must be done to ensure that those with those needs have access to the service that will facilitate their educational re-engagement.

Possible Models for Expansion
A model that may influence the expansion of these vital specialised education environments could be one that has already proven to be extremely successful in Queensland. Young people at risk due to youth justice, poverty, alcohol/drug issues and other circumstances that have led to extended disengagement from mainstream schooling are now able to attend one of the 6 campuses of the Queensland Pathways State College (QPSC) to access senior school levels of education in an environment supportive to their needs. Although the QPSC do enrol some students whose challenges include mental health problems, these young people are not experiencing illness of the severity and complexity of those whose only opportunity for educational and social re-engagement is at a Support School where the environment, surroundings, program, and procedural structure focus solely on those within this particular cohort. (Some students who have attended/are attending a Support School may develop the capacity to be able to benefit from attendance at one of the QPSC campuses after a period of stability and progress at the Support School but there are young people for whom that environment/program may not be appropriate at any stage.) So if multiple educational facilities for at-risk young people of 15 years and older have proven to be required and effective, then the Queensland Education Department clearly understands that gaps exist between mainstream schools and special education programs in order to properly accommodate ‘students with disability to access, participate and achieve at school’.

HUB of EXPERTISE
Whatever structure underlines the expansion of Support School services, the concept of a ‘Hub of Expertise’ should operate within that. Unique students with unprecedented needs present educators with situations from which fresh approaches to practical service provision must be developed. So staff across the ‘Support School Network’ will be regularly discovering innovative methods that when shared, could provide fresh resources to other educators working in the field. The Case Management role being undertaken currently at the Barrett School at Tennyson is a case in point. This is – and will continue to be – a developing area of Special Education. As mental health issues dominate the lives of more and more young people, we cannot ignore the need for increasing the kinds of services that will prevent vulnerable young people from being lost – to education, to effective healthcare and, tragically on too many occasions, to their families and communities. For Queensland to take this opportunity to create not just more services but a mechanism that will proliferate the expertise that will continue to expand will inevitably mean that more young people are re-integrated into education and training and at earlier stages than those who currently have spent years in the wilderness.

Finally … and Importantly

Mental health is the predominating issue for young people and yet it is significantly under-resourced. Investment in education options for young people suffering severely in this area is long overdue and clear and concrete plans to rectify this need to be put in place immediately. Planning and implementation for this should be straightforward with effective models in practice already that only need to be expanded and/or replicated. The Barrett School at Tennyson and the education staff of the school that operated within the Barrett Adolescent Centre at Wacol all have knowledge and experience that they are only too willing to utilise in whatever way will improve the lives of young people they know can be helped. Queensland has invaluable resources in these educators … and young people and their families whose lives have been substantially improved are happy to acknowledge the remarkable expertise that has changed their lives. It’s time that this specialised approach that produces such positive outcomes moved from being Queensland’s best kept secret to being one of the state’s proudest achievements.

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