Mental Health in Young People

This is not a topic I take any pleasure in writing but I am deeply concerned about the number of pupils nationwide suffering acute anxiety, stress and depression which very sadly can lead to sleep deprivation, poor concentration, school phobia, self harm, eating disorders and even suicide.  The catalyst for blogging on this matter is not only the increase but the growing evidence that stress has become an issue for primary schools too, so much so that the Government is committing greater funding to improve mental health services, including children’s treatment programmes.

So, two questions require careful consideration: what has changed and what can we do about it?

Firstly, the pressure to ‘achieve’ is so much greater now.  Pupils at some schools are entered for GCSEs early so that they can study more of them; GSCE results now carry more weight with universities and employers; more universities exist, more pupils go to university and more graduates hit the job market each year.  Consequently, pupils want to differentiate themselves by going to the ‘best’ universities and they want to get a First.  In the context of employability it seems that getting anything less than a 2:1 is viewed as failure.  And not only that, but undergraduates have to wrestle with huge loans to afford to go to university and graduating with debts in excess of £50,000 is a real and likely possibility. 

Added pressures face young people in fee-paying schools and include ‘knowing’ the sacrifices their families have made in order to send them to schools like ours, which can lead to feelings of weighty expectation and guilt.  I suspect this may have been made worse by prolonged recession and austerity. In addition, when it comes to subject options decisions, some families exert great pressure on their children to choose the right subjects for certain careers, even if that career is not suited to their child, thus setting them up for potential failure and re-evaluation in the future. Unhealthy and sometimes inaccurate debate over ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ subjects or ‘academic’ and ‘applied’ subjects can cause pupils to select A Levels they are not as good at or don’t enjoy as much, and this is very sad indeed.

And let’s not forget that selective schools, whether fee paying or not, expose young people to entrance examinations from very early ages – we do it from the tender age of 7, others do it from it from 3!  This is often preceded by months of intensive tutoring and now that some schools have moved their entrance exams to September, this can wipe out the summer holiday for some young people.  Failure is around every corner and can cause significant damage to self esteem, confidence and growth.

In addition, technology has added further heat.  So-called smart phones have brought bullying and increased peer pressure into the home and pupils' private lives. Cyber bullying, sexting, pressure to have the perfect body and viewing any grade below a C as failure are 21st Century, 24/7 phenomena.  Pupils spill out their deepest emotions on social media and these can be met with support, ridicule or even abuse and the advent of the ‘selfie’ has served to increase self consciousness and anxiety even further.

Young people live their lives online 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and mobile (smart?) phones have become an ever competitive and intrusive necessity in teenage lives.  They worry about homework, exams, body image, friendships, university and jobs.  Whilst many things have improved, I’m convinced that the pressures of the 21st Century are far greater than those of the 20th Century.

Some suffer as a result of traumatic domestic issues, including loss and marital splits.  Relationships inevitably have their highs and lows but children sometimes get caught in the middle seeing and hearing too much, often with longer term effects.  Very understandably, and in the absence of assisted places or bursaries, parents going their separate ways can mean that pupils have to be withdrawn from their fee paying schools, sports teams, orchestras and friendship groups, and suffer the emotional consequences of severing long established and comfortable ties and starting again in an unfamiliar and unsettling environment. 

So what can be done to help?

In the short term, we are forced to turn to specialists: counsellors, therapists, psychiatrists and psychologists to help deal with the rising tide.  But schools and parents need to be more aware of the early signs of mental health problems and to ensure that every child at risk is seen quickly by a skilled teacher or mental health specialist.

Secondly, schools need to think about recruitment strategies, appointing or contracting in-house nurses and counsellors who are familiar to pupils, such that pupils are comfortable discussing sensitive matters.  Encouraging other staff to pursue new qualifications and develop wider skill sets so they can support vulnerable young people is also very helpful.  Pupils must know who they can turn to in times of difficulty.  Obviously, this all comes at considerable expense and governing bodies must be educated on the importance of these crucial initiatives and committed to providing them.  Promoting, developing and sustaining well-being across any school must be rooted in school improvement plans and budgeted for appropriately. 

Thirdly, the curriculum needs to adapt and more schools are looking at mindfulness programmes, mediation and closer collaboration with specialists who can develop greater awareness and provide training for teachers, parents and pupils.  Awareness of the importance of mental health and its parity with physical health must be integrated into every aspect of young peoples’ development.  We need to encourage our pupils to speak openly about their mental health and we must move away from tackling the symptoms to raising awareness, addressing the causes and targeting prevention and early intervention.   PSHE in school should be used to combat the stigma attached to mental health and families must be guided and supported on how to address issues at home.

At a national level, Government must follow through on its promises and increase the quantity and quality of its support for sufferers and their families and schools.  I really do hope that whatever the outcome of the General Election this remains a national priority.  

Returning to an earlier point, how many GCSEs are really necessary and should early entry be encouraged or even allowed?  I suspect that national league tables have some part to play in schools’ GCSE strategies, as well driving more internal testing.  Do we test and grade too much, does every piece of work need to be graded and is this how pupils learn best? As schools, we cannot duck responsibility and I would being dishonest if I didn’t confess to nervously flicking to league tables published each year in the press or asking other Heads how many pupils they got in to Oxford and Cambridge this year. However, I must admit some relief on hearing the Government’s recent u-turn and decision not to include iGCSEs (we do several) in its league tables, thus excluding us from this artificial measure!

Pupils who believe that their economic future and independence and happiness are wholly reliant on educational performance are at risk of stress and its many manifestations, and we as educational leaders must work hard to promote education in the broader sense, whilst developing resilience in pupils and staff.  Social and emotional learning is every bit as important as the traditional curriculum.  Research at the University of Cambridge has concluded that mindfulness training and psychological well-being have been linked to better learning, social relationships and academic performance, so the enhancement of well-being is likely to improve a range of outcomes in the school context.  Let’s hope that this current rebalancing continues to gain momentum such that the frequency and severity of mental health issues in schools is arrested.