How to support young people’s mental health during exams, results and beyond

With so much seemingly at stake for young people on results day, one mental health charity explains how you can help to protect your students' wellbeing

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Exam results day is a date etched in the minds of millions of students and teachers across the country.

For teachers, it's the summit of years of lesson planning, marking assignments, encouragement and cajoling. For young people, it's a pressure-cooker moment. With so much seemingly at stake, it is not surprising that anticipation of results or getting unexpected grades can impact on a young person’s mental health.  

This was the case for 19-year-old Nikki, who has borderline personality disorder, and completed her A-levels last year. She said:

“When I got my A-level results I was relieved, as I got into university, but in the build-up I was so nervous. This impacted on my mental health; I was having panic attacks all the time because there was so much pressure to perform.”

Unfortunately, Nikki’s story is all too common. Recent figures from Childline show the number of worried teenagers receiving counselling about their GCSE and A-level exam results has increased by 20 per cent in the past year. So what can teachers do?

Put yourself in their shoes

On results day, it's important not to brush off or trivialise young people’s reactions. In the moment, for students, everything can seem to be pinned to those grades – their future, self-worth and identity. As adults, it’s easy to lean heavily on the benefit of hindsight. We know that these results are not the "be all and end all" but without that hindsight, things can seem very different in the moment.

Listen

Look out for the students whose results are not quite what they expected. In an environment of high energy and tension, try to be a calming presence, and be ready to hear their concerns. It can make a big difference to have someone to simply listen without judgement. Offer yourself as someone they can turn to, either on the day, or at another time, once they’ve had time to process the results.

Offer perspective

Teachers know their students incredibly well, and this insight can be invaluable for those who are disappointed with their grades. Carefully highlight their strengths, and any other achievements they may have had inside or outside of school as this can help to bring a new perspective to the situation.

Be ready to sign-post

You don’t have to have all the answers. It can be useful to make yourself aware of other support that is available for young people if you are worried about how they are coping. Have to hand different helpline numbers, or websites and resources; for example, Rethink Mental Illness has a toolkit for young people, and the charity Mind and the out-of-hours helpline SANE both offer specialist emotional support and information to anyone affected by mental illness.

Talk about it

It really can be as simple as talking. Come prepared with tissues, ready for the inevitable tears, and have tea at the ready for talking through the emotions, questions and concerns that can arise on results day. Time to Change, the anti-stigma campaign run by Rethink Mental Illness and Mind, has useful tips for having conversations about mental health.

To view and download any of Time to Change’s free resources, visit its website.

Chloe Grass-Orkin is media officer at Rethink Mental Illness

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