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School pressures contributing to the mental health crisis in young people. An epidemic of “not feeling good enough.”

Pick up almost any newspaper these days, and you will see a story about worrying levels of mental health problems in classrooms. More and more children and teenagers suffer from crippling anxiety attacks, low self-esteem, depression, chronic problems with concentration, eating disorders, worries over body image or self-harm. It’s not just kids who are feeling the strain — it’s their teachers too. In my work with families, I see so many children, teens and their parents who are struggling because of the pressures they are under at school.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that demand for professional support for children and teenagers facing emotional difficulties is increasing. Exam stress is one of the most common problems I see, driven by the growing pressure on students to perform from a young age and fears of what may happen if they don’t get the right grades. Even very young children have started telling me about their tests, worried that their entire future rests on their next set of grades — a huge burden to carry at such a tender age. One teacher friend told me that she wasn’t allowed to say ‘great job’ to pupils anymore because the message always had to be: ‘you could do better.’ It’s no coincidence that stress levels among teachers are soaring and their suicide risk is higher than in the general population. What kind of environment is this for our young people — with even their educators never feeling like they make the grade?

The tragedy is that a sense of feeling ‘not good enough’ has become endemic among our kids. Those children whose talents may not necessarily easily translate into exam success end up believing they have let themselves down, regardless of the amount of effort they have put in. I will always remember one teenage girl I worked with who really struggled with maths. She was predicted to get an E at GCSE but managed a C because she worked so hard. This was a wonderful achievement but she still felt like a failure because she had not achieved an ‘all-important’ A. Even the most academically inclined kids can suffer the same lack of self-esteem, living in constant fear of missing the perfect grades they think they need to succeed in life, or of letting themselves, their parents, and their school down. Our society seems to have embraced such a narrow concept of ‘success’ — academic achievement, money and career — that so many kids with so much else to offer feel excluded before they have even had a chance to start making their unique contribution.

In my view, the alarming rates of mental health problems among young people are mirroring wider stresses in society and collective fears about the future. With so many uncertainties ahead, it’s even more vital that our children and teens learn the importance of looking after themselves. I emphasise that their mental health and well- being is just as important as their exam results. The concept of ‘self-care’ is a new thing for many parents as well as kids, but it’s something we all need to learn if we’re going to meet the challenges to come.