Aside from an assembly on ‘Learning’ at the start of term, my other assemblies since September have been on the theme of kindness: how it benefits us, how it benefits others and how it benefits relationships within the school community.
Student mental health dominates the educational press at the moment; the much cited statistic that one in ten young people between the age of 5 and 16 have a diagnosable mental health condition certainly rings in the ears of anyone working in schools. (for more statistics see for example here). Anxiety seems to be the most common condition followed by depression. Identifying the cause of what seems to be a real rise in the numbers of young people suffering from mental disorders is of course much harder than simply collecting statistics. The usual suspects are listed below:
Girls and increasingly boys are affected by body image pressures, surrounded by unrealistic ideas (often ‘Photoshopped’ images) of how they should look.
The introduction of university tuition fees, impossibly high house prices and an increasingly materialistic culture, has increased financial pressures on young adults. This in turn puts pressure on teenagers to gain the best possible academic results and shape their futures.
The number of young people growing up who have difficult relationships with their parents or who are in households in which their parents are unhappy in their relationship seems to be increasing (see here). Children growing up in unstable families are at much greater risk of mental health disorders or of drug or alcohol abuse. Simply put, children need to know that someone loves them and enjoy reliable and warm support from parents and relationship instability makes it harder for parents to provide this.
I think that these pressures have always existed. At least the first 2, however, are magnified by the internet in general and social media in particular. Young people live their lives under the gaze of a corporate electronic judge far crueller and stricter than any parent, teacher or examiner. The constant pressure to be perfect whilst being ‘liked’, abused or simply ignored and to keep up with the ever-changing fads and fashions of the on-line world is overwhelming. Instead of merely competing with students in the rest of their year at school in terms of appearance, success and general ‘coolness’, modern teenagers must compete on a global scale and at all times. A recent survey suggested that almost half of all teenagers check their mobile phones after they have gone to bed with one in ten admitting to checking for messages or notifications at least ten times per night (see here). Aside from the impact on sleep, and consequently on academic work the next day, the absence of any real time away from the constant pressure of peer review must surely raise anxiety levels. The pseudo-anonymity of social media also encourages people to be far more critical of others than they would be face-to-face: this further amplifies these effects.
What can be done? At Birkdale we are lucky enough to have an excellent school counsellor and good links with CAMHS (Child and Adult Mental Health Services) for those who experience difficulties but we strive to ‘proof’ our students against these pressures, reasoning that prevention is better than cure. Challenging academic work accustoms students to having to try hard over a prolonged period as an antidote to the instant gratification and feedback of social media. Competition, used in the right way, allows students to get used to the disappointment of not winning and to the notion that their self-esteem should not depend on constant success. High quality education on the use of mobile internet technology and how to avoid the various dangers is an obvious priority. PSHEE sessions that help students to focus on their strengths and keep problems in proportion, particularly in the run-up to examination periods, also play a part.
The other part of any answer seems to lie outside of any attempt to strengthen the individual and recognises that even the strongest of characters need support from other people: friends, family and the wider school community. Schools should be a place where every student feels that they have a role, every student is known and recognised and valued and encouraged. House events and extra-curricular activities provide opportunities for students to develop real friendships and the enhanced self-esteem that comes from them. Assemblies and discussions in Form Time allow students to think through typical scenarios and reflect on how their words and actions can affect others. In time I hope that these activities will change behaviour in real life and make Birkdale an even more warm and friendly place to study.
Kindness often seems a rare commodity in our society but genuine kindness transforms our feelings and those of others and develops real community.