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Principal’s mental health plea at Westminster

AN OMAGH principal has made an impassioned plea for more resources in order to cope with an “epidemic of mental health problems in schools.”

Nigel Frith, headmaster at Drumragh Integrated College, made the call as he and a number of other principals gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster on Wednesday.

His comments came as the college also took part in a major documentary highlighting the extent of mental health issues being faced by teenagers in the North.

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“There is an epidemic of mental health problems in our schools which is nowhere near being addressed effectively,” he said.

“There are skills and strategies which can be taught to children when they are in a good frame of mind which can mean that they don’t need counselling…

“Our teachers should be trained to deliver programmes but staff are insufficiently trained.

“Our key roles in school today are to promote learning and get good exam results and the other is to look after our children.

“We are very well trained in how to achieve the first goal, but we are not nearly well enough trained in how to deliver the second one.

We don’t have suicide awareness training or training which enables us to deliver positive mental health strategies to our children.”

Mr Frith also highlighted the difficulties being faced by both staff and students.

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“I am deeply concerned about the welfare of my staff. My central role as a principal has become trying to scan across the school on a daily basis to see who is OK and who is not OK and trying to get to those who aren’t OK before they fall.

“The staff are busy trying to look after the students and I have a concern for both groups. But I see that we are moving into more and more dangerous territory because this is urgent.

“Gone are the days when we were saying things are a bit tough. We are now beyond that and I believe that we have reached a tipping point.”

Mr Frith went on to highlight the pressures on staff, describing how he had a “daily task” of trying to ensure that they were coping with the challenges of their profession.

“The pressures on staff are also increasing and we are concerned about their welfare,” he said. “They have gone beyond professionalism into heroism in the ways that they are coping with these pressures,” he added.

“But we are also noting that they are starting to buckle under the pressure and the irony is that we are then paying for supply staff to cover their absences.

“What we are not hearing is a sense of leadership and vision for the education system in Northern Ireland into reforming the system which is more cost-efficient and effective for the children that we are trying to serve. Until that happens, at best we are just working around the edges and at worst, changing the deckchairs on the Titanic.”

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