Time bomb ticking
on mental illness

Kerri Carr

The challenging behaviour of a student with complex needs may be a symptom of an underlying mental health difficulty, Limerick University assistant director of clinical psychology Dr Barry Coughlan told Federation Council on August 2.

Dr Coughlan said creative and innovative teaching strategies to deal with challenging behaviours missed the point if there was an undiagnosed mental health issue.

He advocated for teachers to receive ongoing training in child development, mental health and psychological resilience to enable them to identify children who are vulnerable, so the students could receive appropriate assessment, diagnosis or treatment.

“We’re not training educators or indeed other health professionals to do diagnosis…but we’re actually giving them some knowledge and some expertise [that] a sometimes very subtle change in behaviour is actually a warning sign,” he said.

Dr Coughlan said mental health difficulties were a “significant barrier to learning”.

“The anxious child in the classroom isn’t a child that’s learning.

“They’re disengaged from…the teacher, they’re disengaged from the curriculum, they’re probably disengaged from other pupils.”

Dr Coughlan said students with complex needs “have no defences”.

“They do not possess the kind of coping strategies that we take for granted…it’s huge for them and hence [they have] meltdowns.”

He said early diagnosis was “really critical”.

“If we don’t get in there early we do get to crisis point, unfortunately.”

“Chances are, probably 95 per cent of the time there is some critical incident that we can actually go back to and that may be [about] a change in staff, it may be loss, it may be bereavement, it may be something quite subtle. It’s not going to be the most traumatic event in the world ever, but for the young person with a complex need who doesn’t actually have the coping strategies to be able to deal with the change that life throws at them, this is a big issue and it creates an anxiety or a depression or some other kind of mental health difficulty.”

Rates of mental health difficulty such as depression and anxiety are higher among students with complex needs than in the general population.


In line with an Annual Conference decision, Federation will:

• urge the Department of Education and Communities (DEC) to develop further professional development in such areas as making adjustments for personalised learning and assessment, developing Individual Education Plans, human behaviour, early detection, mental illness and wellbeing

• call on the State Government to resource the coordination of trans-disciplinary teams, in conjunction with health professionals, to identify the needs of children with disability to facilitate early referral to appropriate services

• call on the DEC to establish system-based psychiatric services that are additional to existing school counselling services. Such a service must be easily accessible to students and schools.