Earlier this week was Suicide Awareness Day, a time where many talk the talk regarding helping others, speaking up, and raising awareness. Unfortunately, there clearly isn’t enough walking the walk. To understand why the mental health crisis has exacerbated, we must look to the start. A child’s schooling years are the time that can define their whole life, so surely, it’s the time to act. If physical education lessons are compulsory, why isn’t mental health?
“I have never, in over 20 years of teaching, seen pupils suffer with so much anxiety and other symptoms of poor mental health”, just the words of one teacher in a recent article from Sally Weale. Mental health issues among teenagers are rising rapidly. It’s estimated that 3 children in each classroom have a diagnosable mental health problem, and the NSPCC says that the number of referrals by schools seeking treatment for pupils has risen by a third in the past three years alone. We’re also seeing alarming rises in youngsters hurting themselves – a 70% increase among 10-14-year-olds in Britain – and 1 in 4 are experiencing suicidal thoughts.
So, what is fuelling this dramatic rise? Firstly, it’s worth noting the reasons are plentiful, and I can hardly do them all justice in a blog post, but let’s look at the main few. One overarching theme is the austerity imposed by Tory governments. Between 2010 and 2015 mental health trusts in England had £600 million slashed from their budgets, there are now 5,000 fewer mental health nurses available, and as such waiting times have doubled in the last decade. Schools have also had their purse strings tightened, with 91% facing real-terms cuts which have even led to parents at various schools being asked to donate money towards vital supplies such as stationary, books, and even toilet paper.
Another is the various changes to the structure of schools, including the increase in testing. English children are among the most tested in the world, right from the first weeks of primary school up until college or work-based learning at 18. As such children are feeling the pressure of education from day 1 leaving them unable to embrace and enjoy their experiences. Arguably the most pressured exams are GCSEs, which have recently been transformed from the traditional lettered system to a new numbered measure ranging from 9-1, where 4 is equivalent to the old C grade. Both teachers and students have had to grapple with the new exams and curriculum with inadequate resources and materials, putting intense pressure on both parties.
The effects of the new exams have been frightening, as Sally Weale highlights here. Some students are facing up to dozens of exams, more than ever before, each requiring dozens of hours of revision, and their mental health is paying the price. One school saw suicide attempts by two students due to exam stress, breakdowns, panic attacks, stress, depression, and increased anxiety. These health issues affect attendance, concentration, retention levels, increases student apathy towards their learning, and this all becomes an increasingly poisonous cycle.
The problems don’t stop at high school either. 2015 figures showed that over 15,000 students had come forward with mental health conditions to their universities – five times the number that did so in 2006. The numbers staying silent will dwarf that 15,000. 40% of students had experienced depression in the past year, and 61% said they have experienced anxiety due to their studies. In 2015 there were 134 student suicides at UK universities, the highest figures on record, and universities are struggling to cope with the resource demand.
The average university has just one counsellor per 1737 students and less than a third have a specific mental health and wellbeing strategy to help their students in need. University is a time where mental health issues generally exacerbate and worsen as students are generally a long way from home, dealing with academic, financial, and social pressure, and are at increased risk of developing addictions to drink, drugs, and even lifestyles such as gambling.
So, how are institutions looking to fight back? One college, UCLA, offered all incoming students a free online screening for depression. More than 2700 students opted for the screening, and 250 have now had follow up meetings with counsellors. Virginia Tech University has opened new clinics to reach students where they spend the most time; even the local Starbucks has one installed. Ohio State University has launched a new mobile app for students to make appointments with counsellors, access exercises and playlists, and contact the clinic in an emergency.
The problem, however, is that despite these niche ideas, a lack of funding generally means that the most important resources and services for students are lacking. Whilst colleges and universities turn to practices such as yoga sessions, mindfulness, and even bringing in pets to relax pressured and worried students, there is generally a lack of assistance and long-term care in place.
We need to be teaching children at a young age about their mental health. We should be teaching them how to cope with stress and anxiety. We need to be teaching them how to notice warning signs, how to take care of themselves, what treatments are available, and that there is no shame in asking for help. In the UK we need to overhaul the education and examination system to take the pressure off our students. There is no need for 3 sets of exams at 14, 16, and 18. Finally, mental health needs the funding it deserves, not just thrown into the health care budget, but into other sectors such as education. It’s time to start walking the walk.