School stress to blame for student depression

A third of children have considered suicide by age 16, survey shows

Kerra Maddern

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Stress at school is the biggest contributor to depression, self-harm and attempted suicide among young people, according to research published today.

Almost a third of children (32 per cent) have considered or attempted to end their own life by the age of 16, a YouGov survey of more than 2,000 young people across the UK suggests. And 29 per cent of respondents said that they had harmed themselves on purpose, according to the findings released by new UK-based charity MindFull.

Stress at school was found to be the main cause of depression among young people, cited by 54 per cent of those surveyed, followed by worrying about the future and low self-esteem.

The findings have prompted concern about the pressure placed on students. The charity, established by the people behind the BeatBullying campaign, is calling for mental health to be a "core theme" of the national curriculum and for all students to have access to counselling and support from a mentor.

Government statistics show that one in 10 children aged 5-16 in the UK has a clinically diagnosable mental health problem. Half of people with lifelong mental health problems experience their first symptoms by the age of 14.

Depression has also been identified as a major concern in other developed countries. A report published in May by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US said that up to 20 per cent of children in the country experience a mental disorder each year and that "surveillance during 1994-2011 has shown the prevalence of these conditions to be increasing".

According to figures compiled by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one in four Australians aged 16-24 had a mental disorder in 2007. Anxiety disorders, which affected 15 per cent of young adults, were the most common.

Participants in the MindFull survey, aged 16-25, were asked to reflect on their experiences when they were school-aged children. They said that they found discussing mental health problems difficult because of embarrassment and the fear of rejection or becoming a burden.

More than one in 10 participants (12 per cent) said that, when they were under the age of 16, they felt as if they were a failure nearly every day. Almost a quarter (24 per cent) of participants with mental health problems believed that this had affected their school or work life every day, and 61 per cent had skipped lessons when they felt depressed.

Francis Burrows, director of operations at MindFull, said that young people feel stressed and anxious because of exams and the pressure to achieve. Pressures on teachers - such as school inspections - are often "mirrored" by students, he said.

"Pressure is put on children by schools, families and other children. If a young person is not that confident, they will find these expectations difficult," Mr Burrows said.

Learning about mental health issues should be a "really important" part of personal, social and health education, he added, to reduce the stigma attached to mental illness. Mental health problems are seen as a "weakness", according to MindFull's report.

Lucie Russell, director of campaigns for UK mental health charity YoungMinds, said that it is "really hard for a young person growing up today".

"Being at school is hard: there is a lot of testing and focus on exams. Someone who gets below a C grade can feel a bit like a failure," she said. "Job prospects for young people are also awful, and there is an online world where they can be victims of cyber-bullying and constantly have to think about how to present themselves. There is pressure to be the perfect person."

The UK government has committed pound;22 million to improve children's access to psychological therapies, but two-thirds of local authorities in England have reduced their child and adolescent mental health service budgets since 2010.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that although the majority of children in school are "happy and well-balanced", school leaders are aware of an increase in mental health problems. Students need help to develop the "emotional resilience to cope" with the stresses that they encounter, he said.


Aidan McNulty, from South London in England, has set up a support group for young people with depression in his local area after suffering from stress and anxiety. He is now a MindFull mentor.

The 17-year-old said that he felt great pressure to get good grades in his GCSEs, and sought help from his doctor two years ago. "I was bottling it up. My family were going through a tough time and I didn't want to put more problems on top of theirs," he said.

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Kerra Maddern

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