An impassioned plea…

An impassioned plea, by my friend and colleague, Fiona Birkin

I’m sure at some stage in your life, you have watched an impressive demonstration of how, with one flick of a finger, energy can be transferred through a carefully thought out maze of dominos. There is a sense of excitement, wonder and anticipation as we see energy powering its way towards its final, planned and observable action.

It’s interesting how the concept of dominos, the very physics of it, can also be seen in a social context.

Kathryn’s choice to end her life was a cataclysmic bomb blast; the energy was powerful! I mistakenly thought that, with that one monumental ‘flick’, my quest to improve the mental health outcomes for children would just move through the stages like the best demonstration of falling dominos; but  it seems, like many bomb blasts, the energy that flowed through me from Kathryn’s death was erratic, wide spread and quickly dispersed.

My talk at a TeachMeet, my presentation at an international online conference, my chats in the staffroom, my work with a colleague on a Unit of Inquiry that focusses on social emotional learning, my discussions with key leaders in my school were like domino shrapnel; they hit some people, had an emotional effect and then their lives got pulled back into the same old routines.

Not one person has answered my Tweets or responded to my requests at my presentations.

I have asked people to go back to their schools, to reflect on what they are doing to promote social emotional wellbeing. I want to get an understanding of what programs and resources are being used, what and how much professional development is focused on the wellbeing of our children. I want to know just how much understanding there is amongst teachers about the personality disorders that can be ‘nurtured’ in an environment that through an over crowded curriculum and a focus on academics manages to miss/ignore the ‘red flags’. It’s like the dominos hadn’t been placed correctly, there wasn’t a clear discernible path; or the power of that first explosion was too immense to be directed down one path.

So despite the fact that people had told me how they have been moved by my talks, they were not moved into action. I now understand why. For energy to bring about a specific action, there needs to be control and a path to follow. I was in too many pieces. One email, provided that first measured push.

The provocation? An article in The Age; to be specific, the photo of two people wrapped in a grief so intense, it was like seeing the loss of a child by suicide personified. I felt as if someone had journeyed into my soul  and taken a photo of my pain for all the world to see!

I was so moved, felt such a connection, that I wrote to Annette and Stuart. Annette wrote back and told me she had shared my letter with friends who are teachers and with Professor Patrick McGorry, who in turn, has arranged to meet with me.

The painful irony of all this, is that when I was trying to help Kathryn battle her demons and I felt as if no one was giving me the information or help I needed, I read about Professor McGorry and had thought, I’ll write to him, he should be able to give me a straight answer.

I didn’t write.  I felt it would be presumptuous to bother someone so well known for his work and that surely, anything he knew must be known by the mental health professionals I was already dealing with.

Now that Kathryn has lost her battle, here I am, being asked by the very person I shied away from, to meet and talk openly about the state of the mental health system here in Australia; to share Kathryn’s story. In a sad way, it’s like when road works on a dangerous intersection only gets started after there has been a number of fatalities.

I could scream to the heavens, “but why  did one of the fatalities have to be my Kathryn?” But that won’t help me, it won’t keep the dominos falling, falling until all that energy transfers into a bigger more powerful action; a reformation to the way this country thinks about, teaches and responds to mental health.

It is up to me to make sure all the dominoes remain positioned correctly so that the momentum is not lost. I will do this because the world needs to know what Kathryn refused to believe, her life was important, meaningful and treasured. I will take up her baton of love for humanity and I will fight for her.

All I need from you, is answers to the questions I have been asking educators for a year now:

What is your school doing for social emotional learning (SEL)?

What resources do you use?

How much PD do teachers get on social emotional learning?

Do teachers have a clear understanding of the ‘red flags’ that could gradually morph into full blown personality disorders and or depression?

What is your schools protocol when a student is struggling socially and or emotionally?

By Fiona Birkin