Although exam season may not be the most opportune moment to take a measured view of the overall state of our children’s mental health, it provides a timely snapshot of the sorts of pressures our current education system seems to expect students to absorb:
• Required levels of achievement are poorly defined as new qualifications and grading systems are introduced without time for teachers and students to prepare adequately
• Students’ futures still depend on performance in high-stakes academic exams rather than on broader measures of achievement across a range of life skills
• Increasing youth unemployment drives more young people into further education which will burden them with debt but won’t necessarily improve their chances of getting a job on completion of their studies.
Compounding these pressures are socioeconomic issues that manifest themselves in bullying, gangs, peer pressure, eating disorders, body dysmorphia and self-harm, all of which appear to be on the rise. Put this in the context of reports that levels of depression in teenage girls are at an all-time high and that suicide is the biggest cause of death in young men, and it seems obvious that this is a problem that needs to be addressed urgently and decisively.
Profile-raising charities like Heads Together can lead the way in highlighting the importance of tackling issues relating to mental health and removing the stigma associated with mental illness. However, work is needed at a far more fundamental level to educate young people about the signs and symptoms of mental health problems and about how to obtain or provide help.
The timetable may already seem choked with competing demands for teaching time, but there has to be a case for prioritising mental health and for tackling the issues head-on from a young age, through more structured provision.
This may start with discussions about emotional well-being within the early years classroom. Something as simple as acknowledging how our moods can affect our actions is important yet is often overlooked in the classroom when there are pressures to cover the curriculum and show that academic progress is being made. Too often, we expect students to suppress emotions that are affecting their concentration levels, rather than allowing them opportunities to explore and understand these impacts. Teaching students how to listen and to engage with someone who is in distress should also form part of this provision.
It is essential for schools to have in place support networks for both students and staff, so that everyone understands how to gain help. And, of course, that help should be readily accessible. Basic counselling skills should be covered in all teacher training courses, while nominated individuals within each school should receive more in-depth training – though this, of course, should not be a substitute for professional medical help in more involved cases.
Understanding that mental health issues can affect anyone is a crucial part of educating young people, so adults must be prepared to engage in frank discussions – at least to the extent permissible while maintaining professional boundaries – or bring in experts from outside to provide input where necessary.
More structured support during periods when anxiety is obviously heightened – for example, during exams – is vital. It’s not enough to deal with exam stress on a case by case basis, as this relies on teachers spotting those who are exhibiting obvious signs of stress, rather than providing support to those who are either determined to conceal their anxiety or unable to articulate it. We need to give students a forum in which to discuss their concerns and the vocabulary with which to do so effectively.
There is perhaps a limit to what can or should be taught formally through lessons in mental health. However, it is surely every school’s responsibility to cultivate an ethos where openness about mental health is paramount, together with a framework within which every student and member of staff understands how to access help when (rather than if) it is needed.