“How are you?”
It’s a perfectly normal question.
I turned it into an impromptu experiment with my students when we returned from lockdown. If they were struggling emotionally and mentally, how would they respond to a parent? To their best friend? What did they really want to say?
The disparity between their three answers was quite alarming. I did this lesson with three separate Year 12 classes, totalling 55 students. Only two of them would approach their parent or carer.
More would confide in a friend or partner. But most also added that they feared overburdening this individual, or in the past had been dismissed by someone they thought cared, creating a reluctance to be completely open.
Nearly all were horrified at the suggestion of speaking with their GP, largely out of fear that their parents/carers would somehow hear about it.
Student mental health: 14 ways to tackle the crisis
Coincidentally, a couple of weeks later, I saw a report that said half of students aged between 11 and 19 would not feel able to reach out to a teacher or support figure in their school or college.
Student mental health: Why many struggle to speak out
In the background of my unplanned research, I was participating in online mental health training for education staff. There was a lot of focus around attachment theory and how we represent attachments for our learners. Teaching in a post-16 environment, attachments will look very different compared with primary settings, for example; my students are looking to establish and build upon chosen attachments, be that friendships or relationships with colleagues. They also have the autonomy to seek the expertise of clinical staff, with the advantage that they can exercise more control over their healthcare and treatment. So, the dependence on primary caregivers to offer emotional support will likely decrease for many, as other attachments strengthen – surely?
Social media inevitably threw its hat in the ring, too, when I saw a meme that compared the activities of a wartime teenage soldier to those of a youth suffering with – and yes, it was in quotation marks – “PTSD” in 2021. The inference, and sadly the ignorance, was clear. Naturally, the comments included many mentions of “snowflake” and general degradation of today’s young people. This type of post is not uncommon. Neither is the wider media blameless.
So, young people do not feel able to talk to their parents. They cannot offload fully to friends. School and college staff seem off-limits to many. The GP is far too daunting and risky. And when they do find the courage to reach out, the media shamelessly bullies them for being open.
Our children and teenagers today may not have experienced the same trauma and uncertainty as their elders. They may be seen as more privileged because of advances in technology, healthcare and education, with opportunities for exploration and adventure and more freedom as historic restrictive norms and values have been challenged and dismantled.
The need for constant perseverance
But that means they now face their own unique set of difficulties. The equality gap has shrunk as much as it has grown – there are different social divides. From many conversations I have had with students past and present, the vast number of opportunities that do exist creates pressure, either by expectation or exclusion: volunteering, additional qualifications, work experience, travelling, clubs and associations that offer truly intriguing and thrilling interests and hobbies, which are marketed as selling points for success in employment or university applications.
This is on top of what they perceive as “duties” – learning to drive, student employment, setting up home, starting a successful career, being in an intimate relationship, looking after family. Yes, many of these are personal goals, but there is also an expectation to fulfil them all. It can be the difference between personal and professional success and perceived failure.
That’s brutal, it’s suffocating. Who are they supposed to turn to?
There has been considerably more emphasis on good mental wellbeing in education in recent years. Unfortunately, at post-16 level, they have not had this consistent positive exposure. The stigma of mental illness is a societal challenge and it will inevitably take generations for any significant impact to be felt. Therefore, despite progress being made, it demands constant perseverance.
We may not be a learner’s first choice of confidant. For some, it might take years to feel able to reach out, by which point considerable damage may well have occurred. But we can model a positive attitude to mental health, an openness to share, a non-judgemental response to uncharacteristic or undesirable behaviour. We can promote a safe space in which to talk and feel valued and nurtured, and empower them to embrace their struggles before they spiral out of control.
Students have told me that I am approachable and helpful to talk to. This, to me, is a greater compliment than them completing their college studies, because their ease is the foundation for being able to achieve.
Mel Tropman is a health and social care teacher in a college in the East of England