Depression and exams link disputed

11th June 2004 at 01:00
GPs do not hand out Prozac to stressed GCSE students say experts. Warwick Mansell and Stephen Lucas report

Claims that today's teenagers are becoming increasingly "stressed-out" by exams have been challenged by experts and some teachers.

Experts were scathing about a front-page story in the Observer newspaper which linked a trebling in the number of anti-depressants handed out to teenagers since 1995 with GCSE and A-level worries.

The number of prescriptions for anti-depressants given to 16 to 18-year-olds in full-time education has risen from 46,000 to 140,000 since 1995.

Prescriptions to under-16s rose from 76,000 in 1996 to 110,000 last year, official figures confirm.

However, the statistics, from the government's drugs watchdog, the Modern Humanities Research Association (MHRA), make no link between the increase and students' exam worries.

The two experts quoted in the Sunday newspaper told The TES that they did not believe exam stress was the major factor, one claiming that he had no experience of any child being prescribed Prozac for exam nerves.

David Cottrell, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Leeds, who sees patients suffering from depression, said: "In my experience, both as an academic and as someone working in child mental health, I have never seen a child who has been put on anti-depressants by their GP for exam stress.

"Drugs such as Prozac and Seroxat are treatments for depression, not exam stress."

Professor Cottrell and David Healey, director of the North Wales department of psychological medicine at the University of Wales, both argued that exams are not the main reason for the rise in prescriptions. In recent years, doctors, aware of the benefits of anti-depressants, had become generally more willing to prescribe drugs to children.

A separate story in London's Evening Standard claimed that the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) was advising doctors on how to handle severe cases of exam stress.

However, Nice said that the guidance concerned the general issue of depression among children. There would be no specific advice on the pressures of exams.

Cary Cooper, professor of psychology and health at Lancaster university, while not commenting on the figures themselves, said the pressures on teenagers over exams were now "horrendous".

He said: "Twenty years ago, there was exam stress, but the standing of the school did not depend on students' results, as there were no league tables.

"Parents were not as clued-in to the importance of exams as they are now. And now they know they will have to shell out thousands of pounds on university tuition fees, if they want their children to go to a good university."

Teachers had mixed views on whether pupils were more stressed than in the past.

Clare Considine, headteacher at Bordesley Green girls' school, Birmingham, said: "I have noticed an increase in stress among pupils at GCSE time over the past five years as youngsters have become aware of the competitive nature of examinations and the access provided by high grades."

Derek Barnard, headteacher at Tunbridge Wells grammar school for boys, Kent, said: "The British student is over-examined. At my school, children are giving up extra curricular activities such as cricket so that they can study more."

But Cath James, headteacher at Meadowhead school, Sheffield, said: "Some children say they are stressed when they are not working hard enough.

Sometimes their idea of stress is different to mine."

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