An ABC of emotions

4th April 2003 at 01:00
Depression and anxiety are increasing, particularly among teenage girls. Can 'emotional literacy' classes help them to cope? Susannah Kirkman reports

TEENAGERS are more depressed and anxious than ever. New research shows a three-fold increase in serious psychological distress among 15-year-old girls since 1987, mainly triggered by rising educational expectations So how can schools protect pupils' mental and emotional health? "Emotional literacy" - teaching them to recognise, handle and express emotions - could be the key.

Dr Katherine Weare, reader in education at Southampton University, is advising the Government on emotional literacy. She believes promoting qualities and skills such as empathy and good communication can make pupils more resilient.

Teenage girls seem in particular need of such help. The Medical Research Council has revealed a steep rise in anxiety and depression in 15-year-old girls. Researchers surveyed two groups of about 2,000 Scottish 15-year-olds in 1987 and in 1999, and discovered that low-level mental health problems had almost doubled. In 1999, 33 per cent of girls suffered symptoms such as sleeplessness, inability to concentrate and feelings of strain, compared with 19 per cent in 1987.

Worryingly, the proportion of girls with serious depressive symptoms rose from 6 to 18 per cent in the same period. Exams are a major cause: girls'

anxiety peaked just before their Standard grade exams, the Scottish version of GCSEs.

Boys appear less troubled and the proportion experiencing low-level psychological problems increased only marginally between 1987 (13 per cent) and 1999 (15 per cent). While 45 per cent of girls in the 1999 study said they were worried about doing well at school, the figure for boys was 35 per cent.

Girls now feel the dual pressure to be both clever and attractive, the research suggests. A quarter worried a lot about their looks and a third worried about their weight. Girls from middle-class families are most vulnerable; 38 per cent from non-manual backgrounds suffer anxiety and depression compared with 27 per cent from social classes 4 and 5. The latter groups also worry less about schoolwork.

The findings only confirm what many heads are seeing in their schools. Paul Strong, head of William Farr C of E comprehensive in Welton, Lincolnshire, says: "We have five Year 11 pupils on medication for depression and a girl who suffers severe anxiety whenever she comes to school."

Southampton is one of the authorities trying to boost emotional literacy - which it defines as the ability to recognise, understand, handle and appropriately express emotions. In fact, the authority attaches as much importance to emotional as it does to conventional literacy (see panel, top).

During the past five years it has set up anger-management programmes, trained teachers in behaviour management and helped to develop the emotional literacy of parents and teachers. In this time, permanent exclusions have plunged by 500 per cent.

And it is not just pupils who need help. In West Cumbria, one primary is running joint lunchtime sessions with the Workers' Educational Association, offering relaxation classes, yoga and massage to reduce staff stress.

But perhaps it is the Department for Education and Skills that needs to improve its emotional competence most. Its narrow focus on targets fails to recognise valuable emotional and pastoral work. LEAs have told Dr Weare that the department should concentrate less on targets and more on the vital, wider role of schools in the community.

"Fifteen, female and stressed: changing patterns of psychological distress over time", by Patrick West and Helen Sweeting. MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, Glasgow, Scotland. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 44:3 (2003). "What Works in Relation to Promoting Children's Social and Emotional Competence?", report for the DfES by Katherine Weare and Gay Gray, Health Education Unit, School of Education, Southampton University

* Carolyn Fayle, head of St Denys primary, Southampton, is concerned about the number of pupils with emotional problems. They need extra support that teachers do not always have time to give.

So she has appointed an emotional literacy support assistant. Jayne Plummer (pictured left) helps to build self-esteem and advises on making and keeping friends.

Behaviour has improved, says Mrs Fayle. "We can now reason with our most challenging pupil and he is starting to take more responsibility for his actions. Until children are emotionally literate, they can't learn."

Adrian Faupel, an educational psychologist with Southampton, says teaching children to enhance their own and others' sense of worth should be a higher priority than GCSE scores. He says: "We are trying to redress the balance so schools are not just about academic attainment."

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