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My students are struggling with their mental health – we need research to help

One anonymous teacher talks about the struggle of identifying which children are at risk of mental illness and suicide and why research could be the answer. 

I’ve worked as a history teacher for 6 years now, teaching kids from 11 – 17 years of age, and during that time I’ve seen a big change in the mental health of students. 

Over time, awareness has increased and there’s definitely greater recognition of certain conditions now compared to six years ago. Unfortunately, I think that could be in part due to a rise in anxiety and stress amongst pupils caused by the added pressures brought on by the new exam system. I also worry that the rise of social media is playing a part, and online bullying is something that is very difficult for teachers to tackle. 

It’s heartbreaking to see students struggling to cope, particularly the younger kids. I’ve had year 7 students in my classroom crying as they feel they have too much homework. 

Balance is so important for young people and their mounting workloads cut into their leisure time. How can we expect children to develop mental resilience with this much stress? They need time to themselves, when they can get outdoors and get the endorphins pumping. Surely that can help improve their mental wellbeing?

More support for teachers is needed

My current school is leading the way in terms of awareness amongst students and staff.

Mental health is now a topic in PSHE classes and we’ve received Child and Adolescents Mental Health Service (CAMHS) training. The training had a heavy focus on anxiety, and the signs we should be looking out for to identify it in students. We’ve also received some training on other conditions such as OCD, suicide and self-harm.

The students have received ‘emotional first aid’ with mixed reviews. A lot of students felt that the mental health training given in schools wasn’t very practical or applicable. They want ways to try and manage their mental health, and they didn’t feel the training covered that. 

It’s difficult to tell which students are most at risk

This training has given me a better understanding of potential triggers such as exam pressure and social media, and we now discuss these in class. I try to give students as much practical advice as I can.

But there is a worrying pressure placed on teachers to be able to spot the signs that a child is in crisis, which can be really difficult.

If you know the student well you might recognise a change in their behaviour, or indicators such as self-harm – but teachers are responsible for classes of 30 students, so you won’t always notice. It can be hard for us to determine when a student’s mental health is at breaking point, and when it’s just temporary stress – so we’re unsure how to direct students to the right level of support for them.

MQ’s research looking at suicide warning signs in school children could be hugely helpful to teachers. If we had a tool to identify which pupils are most at risk, then we could try and direct them to support sooner. 

We also need a better understanding of all the factors at play, including the impact of bullying and the mental health of LGBT students. Lots of this is currently unknown so I hope research can shed some light on it.

Teachers are not 100% resilient either. School culture can feel incredibly target-driven, and that pressure rubs off on children from their teachers. Staff are struggling to achieve a work-life balance and so teachers’ mental health is another concern.

Early intervention is key

It’s crucial that we get students support before their condition escalates. I worry that what starts as anxiety could easily lead to drug abuse, self-harm and suicidal feelings. Helping students as quickly as possible could make a real difference. This is the one area of mental health I would like to see a focus on.

I would also like to see more done to reduce the pressures on teachers, and attention given to supporting parents. It’s equally important that parents are able to spot the warning signs and changes in their children’s mental health – and I’m sure more support could be given to them to help with this. 

Mental health affects us all, and we have a long way to go if we want to truly understand it.

Last updated: 19 January 2018


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