26/02/2020 - 13:43

Smart Schools program raises awareness of epilepsy

26/02/2020 - 13:43

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Epilepsy WA has accredited 35 schools in Western Australia as ‘Epilepsy Smart Schools’ in an effort to promote awareness and reduce stigma associated with the condition.

Smart Schools program raises awareness of epilepsy
Emma Buitendag says fighting the stigma of epilepsy is as important as treating the physical symptoms. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

Epilepsy WA has accredited 35 schools in Western Australia as ‘Epilepsy Smart Schools’ in an effort to promote awareness and reduce stigma associated with the condition.

Epilepsy WA chief executive Emma Buitendag told Business News she was thrilled to see so many schools implement the program since its rollout at the start of the year.

“We’ve had positive feedback from school communities and I can see this program going from strength to strength,” Ms Buitendag said.

Epilepsy WA was founded in 1963 to fight discrimination against a condition Ms Buitendag said affected 4 per cent of the population.

She said one in 200 WA school children currently live with an epilepsy diagnosis, and while the condition was closely associated with seizures, those with the condition struggled with an array of symptoms on a daily basis.

“Even someone who has well-controlled epilepsy may have effects from their epilepsy and their medication; for example, someone may experience fatigue, memory and cognitive issues,” Ms Buitendag said.

Misunderstandings over how the condition presents can also lead to stigma, with a World Health Organisation report late last year listing perceptions of epilepsy as being untreatable, contagious or a form of insanity having an impact on sufferers.

Those misconceptions often negatively weighed on a child’s education, with negative flow-on effects later in life when it came to gaining employment or building relationships, Ms Buitendag said.

It was those impacts on students that prompted the development of the program in Victoria by Epilepsy WA’s counterpart in that state.

Victoria’s Department of Education and Training has since made the program legally required training for teachers in all the state’s schools, with that success now contributing to the national introduction of Epilepsy Smart Schools.

The idea, Ms Buitendag said, was to support teachers and school communities in taking basic steps to reduce risks for sufferers, as well as develop better understandings of the condition.

“That’s not just seizure first aid, but the many impacts that epilepsy can have and how [teachers] can support students living with the condition and help reduce stigma, which is essential because it’s still such a stigmatised condition,” she said.

Ms Buitendag said the three step-program involved: training teachers to understand the basics around epilepsy first aid; raising awareness of the condition through an assembly or event; and annually reviewing care plans for students living with epilepsy.

Ms Buitendag said Epilepsy WA supported schools to implement the program with a school-specific website that contained free learning materials, fact sheets and classroom resources for teachers.

More than 30 schools have now implemented the program since the start of this year, including regional schools such as Balingup Primary School and Belridge Secondary College and Challis Primary School in Perth.

That’s on top of a number of childcare and after-school centres also accredited, including Camp Australia.

Ms Buitendag said she was impressed with how the program had been implemented so far, calling it a generation-changing way of looking at an often misunderstood condition.

“It’s one of the most common chronic conditions teachers will come across in their career,” she said.

“We’re getting the whole school involved so we can build an inclusive community where it’s no longer stigmatised."

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