Last November, I sat on a panel with the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Sir Simon Wessely.
At the time, the government-funded Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2016 had recently revealed that 26 per cent of women aged 16 to 24 had anxiety, depression, panic disorder, phobia or obsessive-compulsive disorder. The professor confirmed these statistics, but also went on to say that it was utterly unclear what had caused the increase.
Certainly, I have come to understand that the rise in the number of students with mental health problems is a multifactorial issue. And while there are numerous reasons for this, I would argue that there are three key ones:
Cuts to children and young people’s mental health services have compounded the impact of the reduction in school budgets generally. As the government reduces school budgets by 8 per cent in real terms over the course of this Parliament, school leaders have to prioritise spending; it is the student support mechanisms on the periphery of the budget spreadsheet that are often the first to be sacrificed.
A greater focus on the level of academic challenge that schools provide has meant an increase in the number of terminal exams and, some would say, a rise in the difficulty of those exams. Increased academic challenge is arguably welcome, but in the context of reduced budgets, performance-related pay and a raft of uncoordinated, rapid changes in education, it has been difficult to prepare students securely for the greater academic challenges that they are expected to face.
The effect of social media upon our children’s world is a factor that is making our school environments increasingly stressful. Most arguments between students now seem to have their roots in who said what about whom on Facebook or Instagram the night before. As the powers of this technology grow, middleaged teachers, who are supposed to deal with the negative effects, are increasingly being left behind.
While it helps to understand the causes, it ultimately can’t be the job of school leaders to tackle these factors head-on. We don’t have that kind of power. Instead, we must get on with the business of supporting young people as best we can and providing them with strategies to manage their own mental health.
John Tomsett is head at Huntington School in York and a member of the Headteachers’ Roundtable. He is the author of This Much I Know about Mind Over Matter