Countering depression and anxiety in teenage girls. In the midst of the usual frenzy of reports about GCSE and A Level results, a shocking article appeared in The Guardian1 declaring that “More than third of teenage girls in England suffer depression and anxiety”. The article’s findings are based on a survey of thousands of 14-year-olds, which show that the number of girls reporting such feelings has risen from 33% in 2005 to 37%, while the comparable percentage of boys stands at 15%, a slight decrease.  Meanwhile, it seems that hospital admissions of under-16s resulting from self-harm have risen by 52%.

These are statistics that need to be taken with the utmost seriousness, so the government’s pledge of £1.4bn to enhance mental health services specifically for the young, including a bolstering of the links between such services and schools, is very welcome. However, it is essential that swift and effective action is taken to identify the key causes and implement effective solutions, rather than basing action on suppositions.

For example, the survey indicates that children from homes where at least one parent is unemployed report lower levels of stress than those from homes where parents are educated to degree-level. Two different theories are put forward to account for this reduced level of stress: either these children have lower life expectations, so they don’t experience the same pressure to perform in exams, or they are more robust in the face of that pressure because of other challenges they have encountered in their lives. Of course, it’s also possible that there is a third, as yet unidentified, reason for this disparity. In any case, selecting appropriate methods to tackle the problem must depend on knowing the reasons for the problem in the first place.

The complexity of the issue is further exemplified by the fact that children from single-parent or blended families reported greater levels of stress and depression. Such socioeconomic factors are obviously not easy to address in the short term. However, there are factors which can and should become an urgent focus of this governmental action.

It seems without doubt that a considerable pressure is inflicted on children by the very nature of our education system. While we should be celebrating the fact that the children recently questioned appear to have a better understanding of the risks of drinking and taking drugs and also appreciate the connection between hard work and rewards, this latter point is perhaps the crux of the problem. The fact that children are on an assessment treadmill from even before they officially start school has been comprehensively reported, and it seems that children themselves are acutely aware of this, however well their teachers and parents try to shield them from it. The pressure is relentless, as at every turn children are aware of whether their performance exceeds, meets or falls below expectations. There is no breathing space or slack to allow them to develop at their own pace.

Analysis of the results of public exams and SATS is rife in the media. We are told which gender, areas of the country and socioeconomic groups were most and least successful. The content of individual tests is dissected, with verdicts given on the abilities of those setting the papers, the children taking the tests and the teachers preparing them. League tables purport to give us judgements on the most and least effective schools. Inspectors arrive, take brief stock and depart, sometimes leaving previously harmonious educational environments in uproar. We talk in terms of “underperforming” schools “failing” their pupils, yet by publishing league tables and inspection results based substantially on pupils’ performance we are implicating the pupils themselves in such perceived “failure” and “underperformance”. And undeniably children feel the pressure.

Advocating academic success while not condemning the lack of time available to help children to develop into happy, well-adjusted adults is an abdication of responsibility on the part of policy-makers. Which is why reports this week of a substantial reduction in time spent on PSHE lessons2 in secondary schools – a fall of 32% since 2011 – are particularly disturbing, especially as one of the other factors implicated in the rise of stress and depression in girls is the use of social media. The potentially negative impacts of intensive social media usage – cyber-bullying and peer pressure, interrupted sleep and poor concentration – are now well known, so it is imperative that schools are given scope to educate pupils about these effectively. This will mean a shift in policy so that time spent on the non-quantifiable, non-academic aspects of children’s education isn’t begrudged by a system myopically focused on the pursuit of academic excellence.