That was the question we explored with year 11 students in lessons before the half term.
It’s an urgent question because wherever you look: the statistics are alarming and the evidence is piling up.
We know now that one in eight (12.8%) of 5-19 year olds have a diagnosable mental illness and this rises to one in seven (14.4%) of young people by the time they reach secondary school age.(1) And mental illness has a profound impact upon the lives of our young people.
For example, here in Northamptonshire self-harm rates are soaring above the national average. 480 young people aged 15-19 living in Northamptonshire were admitted to an NHS hospital for self-harm in the year 2016/2017 (which compares to a national average of 257 for a county of our size).(2)
It’s a big problem. Something needs to change. And thankfully some things are changing.
Mental health (especially young people’s mental health) has become a topic that is being discussed increasingly at a national and political level. Leaders are waking up to see the scale of the challenge our young people are facing and debating what can be done to help them. After all, 75% of mental illnesses start in childhood, yet less than 30% of mental health research is focused on young people.(3)
Here at ground level attitudes towards mental health are changing too. Talking about mental health is becoming less and less taboo or seen as an admittance of weakness. Young people are growing up today with the simple knowledge that everyone has a physical health and everyone has a mental health. They’re not afraid to talk about either. Perhaps we could learn something from them?
But the question remains: is talking enough? Or is pouring money into this problem going to make it go away?
As we talked with students about their levels of stress the picture we were presented with was not that they never had a conversation about their mental health. The problem was that they were facing pressures they simply had no idea how to cope with. And with a waiting time to be seen by Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services that could be as long as 6 months or more(4), what practical coping strategies did they have to fall back on?
We timed these lessons to take place at the beginning of the most stressful season of exam revision deliberately. We knew that many students would be feeling stressed about their GCSEs just around the corner. And many students did talk to us about exam and revision stress.
But many young people also shared with us a bigger picture of stress, beyond even their exams. Many of them were feeling stressed about the future in general. These times of global, political and economic uncertainty and unrest are trickling down to young people and colouring their outlook, even their worldview.
That worldview isn’t going to change in one lesson on a Friday afternoon after lunch. But we concluded the lesson by aiming to skill up the students in some basic coping strategies for dealing with stress and guidance for healthy living. Getting a good night’s sleep was a key component with many young people still reporting keeping their phones with them as they ‘slept’ at night (“but it’s on silent so I won’t notice it!”… “then why not turn it off?”).
It might feel like a drop in the ocean. But here at Souster Youth we’re working for the longer change too — one that sees young people form a worldview of hope about their future, and the world’s too.
Tim Sandford – Schools Worker, Souster Youth
– – –
(1) NHS Digital: Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2017
(2) Northamptonshire County Council: Self-harm: An analysis of hospital admissions in 10-24 year olds in Northamptonshire, 2012 to 2017
(3) The MQ manifesto for young people’s mental health, 2016
(4) Frith, E. CentreForum Commission on Children and Young People’s Mental Health, 2016