‘It is essential that schools provide a supportive and nurturing environment for their students’
Jane Prescott, headmistress at Portsmouth High School GDST, explores the challenges facing young people and suggests some ways schools can support those struggling with their mental health.
Mental wellbeing is an important but often overlooked aspect of health in schools. As children and teenagers spend much of their time in classrooms, it is essential that schools provide a supportive and nurturing environment for their students. According to the NHS, in 2022, 18 per cent of children aged seven to 16 years and 22 per cent of young people aged 17 to 24 years had a probable mental disorder. This is an increase on previous years and in part may be explained by the trauma of the pandemic - but not wholly. Young people feel the pressure of modern life. It is easy to be critical and terms such as ‘snowflake generation’ are readily applied when it is perceived that teenagers lack the grit and resilience to cope with everyday challenges. The truth is that life is harder in many ways for many people.
Strong mental health in schools can have a positive impact on student academic performance, social development, and overall wellbeing. When students are in a healthy mental state, they are better able to focus and concentrate on their studies. They are also more likely to be engaged in their learning and more motivated to succeed. The UK examination system is designed as a ‘one size fits all’ and for many students they perceive a grade to be a fail if below the arbitrary ‘pass’ mark of four, which is applied to most GCSE examinations. The end result of any education system should be one that creates fulfilled school leavers who are able to move onward into further education and eventually useful and meaningful employment. In the summer of 2022, a third of students in the UK failed to achieve a standard pass in English and mathematics. The UK examination system has been criticised for placing too much pressure on young people, and for having unrealistic expectations of them. Students are expected to learn vast amounts of information in a short amount of time, and the examinations are often highly competitive and only test a proportion of topics studied. This can lead to young people feeling overwhelmed and stressed, and can have a detrimental effect on their mental health. Examinations need to be flexible, accounting for the different learning styles of students.
Schools that focus on creating a safe and supportive environment for their students are less likely to experience bullying. When children feel safe and accepted, they are more likely to be open and honest about their feelings and less likely to act in negative ways.
Schools need to have a proactive approach to helping young people manage their feelings. Being reactive means that problems are tackled too late to access the help needed. Having a dedicated space and staff to help children within school is crucial. Teenagers in particular need strategies to help them face difficulties and know where to access help when needed. Schools need to provide a range of support services and resources to help students address mental health issues early on and create a positive and nurturing environment for their pupils.
Social media has become an integral part of modern life, and it is especially popular amongst teenagers. Whilst social media has many positive aspects, it can also have a negative effect, especially on mental health. The use of social media can lead to increased feelings of loneliness, depression, and anxiety, especially for young people. This is because the content can be overwhelming or daunting to process. From posts about body image to the pressure to ‘fit in’, social media can be a source of stress and worry. The use of social media has been blamed for decreased self-esteem. Teens are often comparing themselves to the ’perfect’ images they see on social media, which leads to feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. Schools can help by taking steps to create a positive and supportive environment. I believe banning mobile phones just pushes the issues with use further down the line, and so by creating an open culture where children feel empowered to seek the help they need, we can provide a strong foundation for positive mental health in the future.
Schools can play a huge part in enabling students to keep their mental wellbeing healthy, and this positive mindset is a lifelong skill which cannot be underestimated.