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Solihull School

Solihull School

No Broken Bones

No Broken Bones

As a school that takes co-curricular activities very seriously, hence the term co-curricular and not extra-curricular, it is not unusual to see pupils around school with broken bones, torn muscles, lumps, bumps and grazes.  Indeed, watching the 1st XV narrowly defeat Trent College yesterday (12-10), two of our players picked up injuries and now join others precluded from selection as a result of knocks sustained in previous contests.  However, I have every confidence that our new school physiotherapy service will get them all back to fitness very soon.

The topic of this particular blog is those pupils, worldwide, who are carrying “injuries” that can’t be fixed with a bandage or cast, injuries that are often dismissed as insignificant or even fabricated – anxiety, stress and in extremis, mental illness.  My previous blogs have had a light hearted feel but not this one. This is an issue that really troubles me.  Of course, I’m not a specialist; I am just an educator, but one who is acutely aware of the pressures young people face and sadly, the tendency for some to dismiss mental illness as attention seeking or even treat it with disdain.

But before going any further, let’s be clear that some stress can be positive.  A moderate level of stress can make us more alert and can help us perform better in situations such as an exam or public speaking (ref: Yerkes-Dodson).  Stressful situations can also be exhilarating and some people actually thrive on the excitement that comes with dangerous sports or other high risk activities.  But stress is only healthy if it is short lived.  Excessive or prolonged stress can lead to illness, mental and physical, and can be debilitating or even worse.

Statistics suggest that the incidence of mental illness in young people is on the increase.  I’m not sure whether this is true or whether it is more a case of clearer diagnosis.  The reality is probably a mixture of both, along with other factors beyond the scope of this forum.  One thing I am sure of is that when I was at school, we were not blessed with the support structures and agencies that exist today.  We were more likely to be accused of being miserable or moody and told to “snap out of it”.  However, not all changes have been for the better.  As a father myself, I see the pressure young people are under to conform physically.  One only need shop with teenagers to fully come to terms with the almost exclusive proliferation of slim fit, skinny fit and even super-skinny fit clothing.  Although I have daughters, the same is true for boys with muscle-fit often added to the equation, with self-esteem seriously at stake. 

Emotional, cognitive and social development can send young people into a tail spin and they start to care much more about how others feel and view them.  In addition to a teenager’s romantic life or the desire for one, helping a friend with problems, bullying and peer pressure can add enormous stress to a young person’s life.

Sadly, problems can also be rooted in money.  For some pupils it is the knowledge that parents are making substantial sacrifices to pay school fees and they feel indebted and anxious about justifying mum and dad’s hard work.  Of course, this has been exacerbated by five years of economic austerity and record graduate unemployment increasing pressure to go to the right university to study the right degree to get the right job, whatever “right” happens to mean.  Furthermore, almost all independent schools offer scholarships and assisted places, and I’m convinced that these can add to the pressure to perform.  I am proud of the number of pupils that receive fee remission of one form or another but we, teachers and parents, must also understand the inherent risks and pitfalls.

I haven’t touched upon the family yet and don’t intend to dwell on this aspect here, but relocation, arguments between parents, a strained relationship with a parent or sibling, a sick family member and a change in a family’s financial status are common stressors.  Even if the child isn’t the cause of a family’s hardship, like financial difficulties or a divorce, the events still affect his or her life.

I wish I could wrap this blog up with an incisive solution, but I’m afraid I can’t.  However, please be reassured that pastoral staff are trained in these matters and we do have, among others, peer mentors, a chaplain, a school nurse and a school counsellor.  It is essential that parents and teachers are all aware of the causes, signs and symptoms and recognise that dialogue within and between home and school could be a life saver.  Finally, we are hoping to offer parents the opportunity to find out more about mental health issues one evening in the New Year.  This session will of course be delivered by a specialist.