For anyone in doubt about the scale of the mental health crisis among young people, a recent student mental health survey conducted by the NUS for the APPG will make for a sobering read. More than three quarters (78%) of those surveyed said they had experienced mental health problems in that year, while more than a third (33%) had suicidal thoughts. In comparison, that is double the figure (17%) for the wider population. Overall, the survey indicated a shocking level of stress and concern amongst students about their mental wellbeing. But, the problem is not limited to students.
There is growing evidence that mental health issues often begin much earlier, and in some cases, with children as young as four. If undiagnosed and untreated, these issues can lead to later problems particularly during the delicate transition from school to university or working life.
Whatever path is chosen by young people, be it via education, vocational training or straight into work, the route from school to employment is a formative and potentially stressful time.
In the APPG report, for example, it states 61% of 16 -18 year olds felt unprepared for university. While some may take the view that such anxiety and apprehension are natural parts of taking such a significant step, the importance of having mental health support available during this period should not be underestimated.
Over three quarters of students experiencing problems do not actually seek support, suggesting it may be much harder to reach young people and talk to them about these issues as time passes.
Take Exams Younger
Experts differ on how best to approach this crisis. Earlier this year, for example, the School Standards Minister, Nick Gibb, suggested children should take tests earlier than at GCSE level. The theory was by exposing children to this type of stress at an earlier age, they would develop better coping strategies later on.
This idea was hotly disputed by Tom Madders at children’s mental health charity YoungMinds, among others. He argued the education system is fundamentally unbalanced, with a far greater focus on exam results than on the wellbeing of students, and in fact schools that prioritise wellbeing also tend to do better academically.
Innovative Online Resources
So, what can educators do to help students manage their mental wellbeing? As mental health issues become more widely talked about, and less stigmatised, a number of innovative online resources and initiatives have appeared, in addition to those already available to schools such as counselling services.
One such initiative is a collaboration between Student Minds and Canadian organisation TeenMentalHealth.Org who have created free online resources for information, support and guidance to help students through key transition periods.
These resources support many of the priorities set out in the Universities UK Step Change framework, aimed at supporting university leaders to embed good mental health across all university activities. This includes working with schools, colleges and parents to support students during transition points.
Seeking Solace in Social Networks
The online world is where young people conduct much of their lives and, as such, needs to be embraced when considering approaches to their mental health. Young people are far more likely to seek out answers to their problems via social networks and through searching online, so it makes sense to provide easy access to the right information via safe and trustworthy sources.
Similarly, at BWW, we are told by universities that immediate access to digital support has been invaluable for students.
Navigating Life Outside of Education
The same is true for those who choose a different path from university. Facing new challenges and unfamiliar environments is daunting for anyone. This is amplified when navigating life outside of education for, in many cases, the first time.
Having the flexibility to chat anonymously to those in similar positions, in a safe environment, at a time and place convenient to them could be the lifeline needed to help manage mental wellbeing at such challenging times.
However young people manage their mental wellbeing, it is vital to encourage, and get them involved in early support seeking. By providing young people with the support and tools to cope with, and learn from, stressful and challenging life events, we are giving them a better chance of growing into mentally healthy and happy adults.
Sarah O’Donnell, Senior Consultant at Big White Wall