As a frontline mental health professional, I am dismayed to see the Safe Schools Program come under review for what appears to be no good reason. From my perspective the program is effective. It’s been accepted – even embraced – by educators and mental health practitioners across a full spectrum of views as a sensible way to protect children from psychological and physical harm.
Claims that the program is designed to promote homosexuality as an attractive lifestyle are irrational. One can only make a claim like this by deliberately misconstruing the content and purpose of Safe Schools, and by wilfully failing to understand the most basic elements of adolescent psychology. No child in their right mind actually wants to be excluded from their peers. In adolescence, it’s true, many children begin to experiment with ways to more or less defiantly proclaim their individuality. This is a period of testing the waters – finding the boundaries of just how much of their inner worlds will be accepted by the world at large. It’s vitally important for full and rounded personal development that these experiments be conducted in a safe environment.
As a mental health practitioner I’m frequently presented with children or young people going through the process of understanding themselves. It’s confronting to say the least – issues of shame, fear, not belonging and not even knowing how to process feelings of difference put them at odds with themselves. And by far the most common emotion that my clients present with is terror. They are terrified by the dawning realisation that they are somehow fundamentally different from the majority of their peers.
Safe Schools provides resources to help cope with this but, most importantly, it sends the message that society – our society – is fully accepting of the idea that they’re normal and valuable and that they have a right to be accepted. Some of the language being used in this discussion is undermining this. The damage that can be done by giving a young person the impression that society does not want them is incalculable. And it’s made worse when this idea appears to come from some of our nation’s leaders.
The ideological attack dogs of the right have used some very immoderate language on this issue. Some of the rhetoric being used has come very close to condemning homosexuality as somehow perverse or wrong, which I suppose is one way to turn the clock back. Despite the admirable position of MPs like Warren Entsch, who has stood up for Safe Schools and its intended users, Canberra’s antics have potentially done huge damage to the mental health of highly vulnerable youth.
Ultimately, the Safe Schools Program is a declaration of support for each and every child’s right to be. The existence of such a program can literally mean the difference between life and death for some of our most vulnerable youth. Apparently there are some people who wish to return to the dark old days when certain kinds of love dare not speak their name. Underpinning all this heavily rationalised, disingenuous “concern” about Safe Schools is the simple wish to turn back the clock to a time that never really existed. An idealised country of the past, where the socially and psychologically corrosive effects of repression are lost in the soft focus lens of nostalgia.
Safe Schools is about clearly advocating inclusion and tolerance. It’s about protecting vulnerable youth throughout their navigation of the formative and early social years of their lives. To attempt to excise it simply because we aren’t comfortable with the subject matter is social engineering at its very worst.