This post is by Ian Macdonald – trainer with the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust and general PSHE person…
High on my list of priorities for reflection has been the issue of using personal disclosures in health education and prevention. My background in drug and alcohol work has taught me to tread this imaginary line with extreme caution. Indeed, this experience was very much following a mantra of ‘don’t do it’. This view has evidence to back it up, where the use of ex-users in schools who talk openly about their own experience and substance using history has had adverse impact on pupil outcomes. There are some examples to the contrary it must be said, although the reliability of these evaluations is at times unclear. In my experience the question from the floor was still extremely common – ‘do you puff then, sir?’. Once I got over the original shock of being called ‘sir’, my general response was along the lines of ‘I don’t really think that matters – I think it’s more important that I have worked with tens, hundreds of young people who are drinking or using. Learning from their experiences is more important and gives me more to offer you…’ That said, I always appreciated where they were coming from – they wanted me to clarify my authority to talk to them about a subject many other adults in their lives felt either unable or too uncomfortable to talk about. I always felt having that standard response and experiences to fall back on contributed to that authority though. Ultimately it didn’t follow their school experiences of an unsupported and untrained teacher going red with embarrassment at the thought of answering them. I’ve written about that in more detail here if you’re interested.
So for a long time these experiences have always informed my default position on ‘distancing techniques’ in PSHE – ie keep that distance by not disclosing personal information, leave your thorough planning and teaching skills to get that authority across. My support of adopting social norms in PSHE has further reinforced this. A social norm, or ‘normative’, approach seeks to challenge pupil misperceptions on influential peer behaviour by promoting the positive choices over the unhealthy ones we want to avoid (the clip below is a good place to start with this). With this in mind, using personal disclosure can unwittingly normalise the very behaviours we want to protect against. Regardless of the overall message you are trying to convey, the overriding one can be ‘sir has done that and he turned out alright, so maybe it’s ok for me to…’
Just when I thought nothing could alter my approach, seeing more of my work focus on mental health specific work has scrambled this way of thinking. Here there seems to be more support for a degree of personal disclosure as a way of bringing authenticity to the work and the messages we convey. How this links to those notions of authority among the audience I mentioned earlier I’m not yet sure. On the surface of it, we can be forgiven for thinking this helps break the stigma around the topic with the previous quote being turned into something more positive – ‘sir has recovered from his mental health issues, so why can’t I…?’ The problem is, how a message is meant to be received by someone is not always how it is received. That is where the fine line lies between intention and reception and I’m not willing to walk that line – for me it goes against the concept of ‘do no harm’.
In spite of this, I do think we can explore the difference in training adults to educating young people. It is here where I find personal disclosures far more palatable, but is coming from a point of furthering practice or just that it is less problematic than doing it with young people? One of the key triggers for this exploration has been my recent pleasure in hearing Jonny Benjamin talk openly and inspirationally about his own experiences with mental ill health and his journey to recovery. He is not only a dab hand at engaging an audience of adults, but regularly goes into schools to share his experiences with young people directly, with great success too. Pooky Knightsmith has also prompted discussion on this with the question that if we were talking about cancer would be be so sheepish around personal disclosure in that realm? Either way I do feel that the support for personal disclosure is seen by many as a valid way to challenge stigma, and to have a very prevalent example of that ‘in the room’. Time To Change and other campaigns regularly use personal stories as a way of challenging stigma around mental ill health. These can be in the form of blogs, posters, video clips and audio clips for radio. Jonny himself has been a trailblazer in this respect (his YouTube channel is here). These resources have the desired impact of challenging stigma and getting people talking about mental health who wouldn’t have done so before – and this really is great. However, I also wonder if increased exposure to this is what is fostering the desire for personal disclosure in the classroom. Ultimately, if these stories are out there already through these avenues, do we need personal disclosure on the part of teachers anyway? My concern is that we don’t jump in with both feet and start disclosing in unsafe ways for both the adult and young people involved.
While I’m still unsure about where we go with disclosures around personal experiences of mental ill health, I do think there may be a place for talking about positive experiences of accessing support and of recovery. In this way, we are normalising the process of gaining support and breaking down stigma around that, rather than of mental illness in and of itself. This also supports a life skills approach within PSHE by supporting young people to develop the confidence and skills to access such support – including substance use, sexual health and general GP services. The upcoming refresh of the You’re Welcome criteria for young people friendly health services may give a local focus for this and help schools and public health teams engage more closely on this. That’s my hope anyway. As for a definitive answer on disclosing personal experiences within PSHE, I’m still to be convinced, but certainly more open than I used to be.