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Stress is one of the main contributors to mental health problems. The latest NHS figures, published in June 2018, revealed that almost 400,000 children and young people aged 18 and under are, or have been, in contact with the health service about mental health problems.
The pressure to perform academically is one of the most common causes of secondary school student stress. Not every teenager is good at discipline or time management, so taking exams may come as a shock to them when they realise these are now important issues.
However, exam stress is not the only challenge that students go through. Let’s look at some of the other stressors that are contributing to this rise in mental health problems among teenagers.
Social media platforms have brought a new dimension to teenage stress. Young people live their lives online, which magnifies any problems with friendships or difficulties with personal relationships, and can lead to cyberbullying.
Teens may never feel ‘off duty’, perceiving the necessity always to reply to media posts from friends or anyone else, 24/7. There is often a pressure of being judged and concern about what people may think about them, particularly on Facebook, etc. ‘If I don’t have enough “likes” it means I’m not popular’; ‘Everyone looks so great and so happy, and I just don’t feel that’ – and so on. Students may start to rely on their new online ‘friends and family’ for the most valued opinions they may receive. Over time they can experience social media addiction, even going to bed at night with their phones ‘just in case’.
Drugs and alcohol
In socialising more during adolescence, some teenagers find it very hard to resist the many temptations around. Their social life is paramount, and they often have a persistent need for peer group acceptance, being in the most popular cohort, attending parties, hanging out with their friends – even putting more importance on friends than on family. The absolute need to be accepted by their peers can motivate them to try alternative lifestyles, in particular alcohol and drugs. Teens are vulnerable at this stage in their development as they try to find an identity. They construct an imaginary social image and are under constant pressure to maintain it. This can be extremely stressful.
Coming face to face with traumatic events like the death of a close family member, sickness of a close friend or instances of physical or mental abuse can have a very severe impact on teenagers. First experience of death can create a fear of losing everyone and everything, adding stress to the pain of the bereavement. Sometimes, even breaking up with a close friend can be traumatic for young teens. It is therefore always a good idea to keep a careful eye on teenagers in the wake of any painful loss.
This can also be just the time when teenagers may be questioning who they are and getting to know about their bodies, that they need someone to talk to with complete confidentiality. A quiet word at the right time could make all the difference to personal confidence about body image, physical attractiveness and relationships.
Sleep and downtime
Not getting enough sleep or regular breaks makes it difficult for students to concentrate and to learn effectively. This can lead to feelings of stress when they are unable to perform well in class or have to face the test of written or oral exams. Encouraging ‘me’ time and a balance between work and play is essential to personal stress management.
Tips to help facilitate effective student learning
- Quiet space: make specific times to actively listen to your students.
- Look out for signs and symptoms of stress and changes in behaviour.
- Check in with students and ask open questions ‘how are you coping?’…’can I help you?’
- Introduce buddying systems so that those who are coping better than others can help those who are feeling challenged.
- Offer help to students with their homework schedules.
- Look out for those who are struggling with coursework. Is it a time issue, relationship problem…?
- Work overload: check if the level of study required is actually more than the individual can handle.
- Talk to students in a way that they will understand you. Don’t be frightened of asking the question ‘do you feel depressed or suicidal?’ if the observed behaviour warrants it, and always ensure that you know what you are going to do if they reply in the affirmative.
As students mature, it is a time of learning, rebelling, experimentation and growth. Make time to listen and give individual students an opportunity to talk openly about issues bothering them. It may take some time to establish a trusting relationship; but once you have that you will be in a position to provide some of the valuable support that students need as they progress towards adulthood. You must always be approachable, and your door should always be open.