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In 2014, ChildLine reported a 200% increase in young people seeking counselling over exam stress

Mental health and wellbeing in schools

In Oxfordshire, we have a lower rate of mental health conditions than the country as a whole (likely due to economic reasons) but the problem is still a distressing one
"The government has issued advice to schools on recognising and dealing with children with a mental health issue"

In 2014, ChildLine reported a 200% increase in young people seeking counselling over exam stress, and the pressure experienced by young people translates into greater workload for parents and teachers, which perpetuates the cycle of nervousness and dissatisfaction

Very few of us find adolescence an easy part of our lives. The introduction of new concepts, priorities and responsibilities in such a transitionary period can naturally lead to stress and anxiety which, to an extent, we often consider as part of the natural progression towards adulthood. More recently though, a wide variety of factors have led to a worrying increase in mental health problems amongst young people. Mental health charity YoungMinds estimate that 1 in 10 people aged 5-16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder.

So what can be done? Governmental policy seems to be gradually placing more focus on mental health, but the statistics show that there is far more that needs to be done, and change in this area seems to happen at a glacial pace. The link between exam stress and mood disorders and anxiety means that teachers are often put under pressure to accommodate their pupils’ health issues into their schedules, but it can be difficult to effectively address such a complex problem. Lucie Russell from YoungMinds told us more:

“Many teachers tell us that they feel helpless in dealing with the increasing demand in schools of children and young people who need help and support relating to mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, self-harm and eating disorders, of which exam stress is often a key cause. It is vitally important that teachers know the warning signs of emerging mental health issues so they can look out for any changes in their pupils and act on any concerns that they have. They also need to be looking at whole school approaches to building the resilience of all their pupils for which YoungMinds provides a range of training to achieve this.”


As teachers are commonly judged on their pupils’ exam results, schools can often unwittingly contribute to “burnout” and stress amongst young people by exaggerating the importance of the tests by which staff are also assessed. YoungMinds make the following suggestions:

“Open conversations between staff and pupils about mental health are vital and it needs to be addressed in school through lessons and assemblies. Knowing that there are adults who care and will listen is very important for building resilience in children and young people,. Schools can also promote resilience by creating safe spaces where pupils can take some time out if they are feeling stressed or unhappy. Providing counselling services for those who need it and they can also put in place measures including having positive policies for behaviour and anti-bullying, strong academic and non-academic opportunities that celebrate pupils attainment and providing a range of sport/leisure activities that all pupils can access.”

Naturally, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all cure for this worrying issue. Exam stress isn’t the only cause of problems such as anxiety that has grown over recent years. The increase in prevalence of near-constant social media usage has introduced a number of previously unchartered pressures into the lives of adolescents. First, there is the well-documented pressure to conform to the presentation of one’s life as ‘perfect’ online: For obvious reasons, we tend to only present the very best of our lives on social media, leading to the impression at our peers’ lives are all just as perfect as they might appear on Facebook or Instagram. Even for pre-internet generations, adolescence has always been characterised by the desire to fit in amongst friends and classmates, so this new medium by which people can compare themselves to others brings additional pressure to conform, 24 hours a day.

The less obvious, but perhaps even more concerning aspect of social media that can detract from the wellbeing of youngsters is the lack of sleep that constant updates and notifications appear to cause.

A study by researchers at the University of Glasgow found that those who specifically use social media late at night and reported higher emotional investment in social media were more likely to experience poorer sleep quality and lower self-esteem as well as being more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.


Dr Cleland Woods, who headed the study, explains: “Adolescence can be a period of increased vulnerability for the onset of depression and anxiety, and poor sleep quality may contribute to this. It is important that we understand how social media use relates to these. Evidence is increasingly supporting a link between social media use and wellbeing, particularly during adolescence, but the causes of this are unclear”.

In terms of addressing the issue, several changes have been made to the status quo. The government has issued advice to schools on recognising and dealing with children with a mental health issue – often, those who may be at risk are thought of as “troublemakers” and their issues can pass under the radar. The advice also makes the explicit declaration that schools have a role to play in supporting them to be resilient and mentally healthy, which is certainly a step in the right direction. On top of this, a number of private schools have introduced mindfulness into their curriculum, which is a meditation-based practice which has been proven on a number of occasions to reduce stress in both young people and adults. The tide does seem to be turning, but there is still a lot to be done.

To find out more or for advice on the issues raised, visit youngminds.org.uk


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