‘There’s too much expected of us’: York students speak out about the many threats to their mental health

26 Jun 2017 @ 7.20 pm
| Health

As exam season draws to a close, YorkMix is publishing a three-part series on mental health in schools. In part one, Sarah Wilson spoke to some York school students about their experiences

It sometimes feels like there are more pressures facing young people than ever before.

Mental health problems are on the rise in teenagers, with Young Minds estimating that one in ten young people aged 5-16 now suffer from a diagnosable mental health problem.

During exam season especially, stress and anxiety can take hold of GCSE and A-level students under pressure to achieve.

But how do we tackle this issue in York? What kind of help is available? And what are the pressures facing young people at school?

We spoke to some current school students and former students from York to get their perspective.

‘It’s impossible to shield anyone from feeling pressure’

Looking good, being popular and social media… a tricky combination. Photograph © cuncon

The students we spoke to agreed that social media was a huge contributor to feelings of anxiety and even depression, particularly for young women.

“Something needs to be done,” says Ellie, now 21 years old and formerly of Tadcaster Grammar. “There’s a huge pressure on young girls to look a certain way”.

The reliance of young people on social media, she suggested, means that it is difficult to escape or avoid this pressure.

Alice, 18 years old and studying at All Saint’s School, said that it can be anxiety-inducing to see other people having fun, or appearing to live a perfect life online.

“It’s not just the work, it’s the constant update of what other people are doing,” she said.

Rachel, an 18-year-old York College student, shared the same view, suggesting that “social media puts across an image of an ideal that feels completely unattainable”.

‘We don’t really get a chance to stop’

‘There’s too much expected of us…’ Schoolwork and exams pile on the stress. Photograph © Janeb13

Rachel also fears appearing “as though I’m not committed, or as though I’m not coping… it feels like at school there’s too much expected of us”.

Ellie suffered with severe depression and anxiety during her A-levels, which got “so bad that I basically stopped leaving the house”.

She blames her illness on “the immense pressure” put on A-level students to succeed.

There was an agreement across student testimonies that young people are being made to juggle too much at one time, with very little time to recuperate and relax.

The switch to a linear examination system for GCSEs and A levels, implemented by Michael Gove in 2014, seems to have exacerbated exam stress for students.

Alice told us: “Two of my AS levels didn’t count last year. So this year I have the added pressure of doing them over again.

“It feels as though all my stress and effort last year was for nothing.”

‘Not enough help’ for students

Many students need a helping hand. Photograph © Cristian Newman

Ellie changed schools before she took her GCSEs, and felt that there was not the same amount of support at her second school: “There was no walk-in where you could go to chat about your problems.”

Rachel said that “support doesn’t feel available” at school for anyone with more minor mental health problems, but that she doesn’t “think it’s anyone’s fault, just an issue of budgets”.

Alice said one of the problems with the help available to students is that “in order to receive any help you need to ask for it which is the hardest part for most people with mental health issues.

“I don’t think schools do enough checking up on students.”

Ellie, who received external professional help during her GCSEs for an eating disorder, said that “treatment for eating disorders needs a complete overhaul.

“I am still shocked at how they think it is best to treat people who are suffering.”

She said that it was only because a teacher eventually intervened that her health began to slowly improve.

However, she called the professional counselling she later received elsewhere “wonderful”.

‘Give us a break’

Young people are struggling with schoolwork and social pressures. Photograph © Steiner Engeland
The students we spoke to all felt that they needed more time to enjoy themselves outside of academic work for the sake of their mental health.

Alice said that “having to keep up with revision and work while also trying to maintain sleep and a social life is nearly impossible”.

Ellie says that schools need to “give younger people a break”, and feels that her teenage years were blighted by the mental health problems she suffered as a result of the pressure she was put under.

Now at university, she says the pressure is huge but nothing close to that which she felt during A-levels.

Her message to young people still in education would be to “enjoy yourself before you actually have responsibilities”, wishing that young people would be given “time to actually enjoy their childhood”.