There have been a number of reports in recent weeks of the rising demand for counselling services in universities, and ensuing debates about the causes of this increased demand. Some have pointed to the relentless pressures on children and young people throughout the UK education system, which, when combined with the difficulties which can happen during the transition to university life, can trigger anxiety and depression. Others blame the combined pressures of academic performance, the costs of higher education and the omnipresence of social media which means that social life can feel as competitive as academic life; ‘you’re always on’, said a student in one report.
Less sympathetic commentators blame the demand for counselling on the provision of the services and the consumerist outlook of students; this implies that if students are paying for an education, they will demand a full service, including support for their mental and emotional well-being.
An astute response to a BBC commentary on the issue, argues that the problem lies with the way in which the successes and failures of schools are measured, which has a knock-on effect on children. ‘One cannot derive a secure sense of self from an education system (or a family system) that defines the child’s success in terms of the institution’s own survival needs – this is the very essence of a dysfunctional relationship’, writes the commentator ( BBC ‘Rising numbers of stressed students seek help’, 30 September 2015). This captures the corrosive psychological effects of a cycle in which schools are evaluated in terms of the academic performance of their students (SATS levels outperforming ‘floor targets’, numbers of students with at least 5 GCSEs at A* to C, including Maths and English, and so on). Students are evaluated, then, in terms which may be more meaningful to the institution than to them and the way in which the institution is measured changes with dizzying frequency.
If the mental health of children and young people is suffering in this frenzied cycle, then what of the educators? What is meaningful to an institution is not necessarily meaningful to its employees. Just as numbers of children and young people are apparently presenting with more symptoms of mental and emotional distress, so a recent survey by the Green Party suggested that 67% of teachers report that their work has had an adverse effect on their mental health. Rising pupil and student numbers, increased workload and declining morale in the face of constantly shifting expectations are cited as reasons.
As their own stress levels rise, teachers are being asked by the schools inspection body, Ofsted, to make sure they can recognise and respond to the signs of mental distress and poor emotional well-being in their students. This could be a breakthrough. If mental health and well-being is something else that is to be measured, it at least forces it onto the agenda of school leaders, who understandably focus their resources on the issues on which they are judged. If teachers are trained to support students’ mental health, they might be encouraged to start conversations about their own. These are big ‘ifs’. Schools currently have ‘flat’ budgets, as funding increases following rises in student numbers but does not grow proportionately to the year-on-year increases in staffing and other costs. Where, then, is the resource for such training to come from?
Awareness of mental health needs cannot be achieved in a single training day. Many schools have counselling services, but they are often heavily in demand and not fully integrated into the life of the schools. If meaningful conversations about mental health and emotional well-being are going to happen in schools, to circumvent the crisis that seems to be happening when children turn into young adults, they cannot start and end as the responsibility of teaching staff. Nor can such conversations and the environments which generate them be nurtured by school counsellors who are often working part-time, sometimes for free, with the most acute cases and who are asked to provide a sticking plaster to a wound often created by the education system itself.
The support for and prevention of poor mental health and emotional well-being of children and adults in our education system must be holistic and integrated throughout schools and colleges. It starts with the promotion of and recognition of respectful and reflective relationships between the members of school communities (as opposed to the retrograde, nebulous notion of building ‘character’, which the Department of Education has latched on to recently).
Such an emphasis needs to be supported by the reshaping of the relationships between schools and the institutions which currently monitor and measure them, praise and blame them. Inspections and reports need to be developmental; ‘targets’ need to have a real and nuanced connection with the children they are meant to serve. Until then, counsellors and other mental health professionals who work with and in schools will carry on sticking on plasters to wounds which never heal.