Six reasons our teenagers’ mental health is suffering – by a York headteacher

29 Jun 2017 @ 5.10 pm
| Health

As exam season draws to a close, YorkMix is publishing a three-part series on mental health in schools. Here we speak to York teacher John Tomsett about the reasons why mental health problems seem more prevalent than ever

John Tomsett knows a thing or two about mental health.

Having been a teacher for 28 years, and a head teacher for 13, he has seen large numbers of children all the way through their education, and has even written a book on the subject of improving mental health in schools.

As he explains in the preface to his book, This much I know about mind over matter… Improving mental health in our schools: “I am no psychiatrist, yet I am expected to manage students’ mental health with little experience and shrinking resources.”

Head teacher of Huntington School John Tomsett

The Huntington School head feels that mental health today is not taken seriously enough; “provision is much more skewed towards physical health”, he says.

When asked if he thinks that mental health problems are more prevalent in young people than ever before, his answer is “undoubtedly yes”.

But the causes of this increase are, he explains, complex and multifaceted, and we don’t know what’s caused it.

However, through his own research and experience John has accrued a lot of insight. He told YorkMix about the six reasons he thinks mental health is a more pressing issue in schools than ever before, and how it might be tackled.

1. Stress from exams – and performance-related pay

Photograph © Narek75 on Wikipedia

John explains that for GCSE and A-Level students, there are more exams than ever, and they’re getting harder.

Additional pressure has also been placed on students by a move back towards terminal examinations, in which the whole grade rests on final exams.

But it isn’t only students who are stressed. Performance-related pay, introduced by Michael Gove to increase staff accountability, has also increased general stress levels.

John explains:

Performance-related pay makes it easy for pressure to go down from me, down into the teachers, and down into the classrooms where staff hand their stress to students like a toxic gift.

2. Neurotic parents

“Neurotic parents put pressure on kids and everybody else,” says John, suggesting that the environment in which children are being brought up in is contributing to an increase in mental health problems.

Today’s society is far more “risk averse” so children live in a bubble-wrap culture that makes them over-sensitive to adversity, lacking the tools to cope.

3. Inequality and cuts

John recently Tweeted this picture out with the caption: ‘It’s raining in York, the school roof is leaking and the buckets are out at Huntington School’

“We’ve never been more unequal,” says John, and the gap is only widening.

Funding cuts have had a huge impact on schools and mental health services.

John recently outed himself as the author of a anonymous TES article titled How my school is losing the battle with funding cuts, expressing the severe implications of money shortage at schools.

He believes that inequality and austerity have had a huge impact on the mental health of students and their ability to access help.

4. Social media

Photograph © Kaboompics

“There is something about social media that people my age just don’t get,” John says.

The difference between younger and older people online is that older generations are more easily able to “just turn it off”.

He told YorkMix that every school is doing huge amounts of work to tackle the issues that come with social media and internet use, but that unfortunately, “you never keep in front of it”.

The internet has also provided greater visibility for mental illness. This has enabled people to dangerously conflate mental illness with mental health issues or problems, says John.

He worries that this may prevent the people who are properly mentally ill from getting treatment.

“Teenagers for generations have felt life is terrible – it’s in the job description,” he said, adding schools “can be trained to support their children in managing their own mental health”.

5. Feeling entitled to happiness

Is this how some young people expect to feel every day? Photograph © Pixabay

John feels that young people tend to think that they can get somewhere or achieve what they want without the need for hard work.

There is also a problem, he believes, with the younger generation believing they have an entitlement to happiness.

Known for his innovative teaching methods, John has chosen to implement a non-examined philosophy course for year 10s, taking up one hour a week.

This course gets students thinking about what they value in life, as well as understanding that “if you are a human and live on this planet you are going to feel misery”, and that “there are ways to get through it”.

6. Lack of fulfilling work

Photograph © Shane Rounce

There is a shortage of fulfilling work for new graduates especially, which makes many students think: “what’s the point?” says John.

For young people, the future can seem bleak and depressing. He also says that one of the problems with diagnosis is sufferers and parents seeing it as a solution in itself, rather than a step.

In spite of these problems, Tomsett says that he is “wholly convinced that we can turn the growing tide of mental health problems in young people”.

He is enthusiastic about York’s wellbeing workers service, which partners the local mental health authority CAMHS with York schools to tackle the issue.

He hopes that by 2020, when funding for this expires, “we will no longer need a school wellbeing worker – surely the best possible success measure for the project”.