In the past few weeks I have had the misfortune of having to work with young people who have been affected by teen suicides. It is that time of year when so many young people feel the pressure of public exams. The extent to which exams might have played a role in these tragic deaths is not clear. But the impact on those who are now facing the exam season has been very obvious.

My anecdotal evidence over the past few weeks suggests the following:

  • Nobody could predict these tragic deaths. Yes, both youngsters were known to have had mental health issues. But both of them had appeared to be functioning well even in the hours before they took their lives
  • Schools respond very differently – there does not appear to be an established protocol to follow
  • Whatever the permanent counselling provision a school might have in place, more will be needed in the short-term. And in the right, supportive environment, the pupils will take advantage of the support
  • The staff in the school need a person to go to – and ideally not another member of staff or senior management
  • The most common emotion I dealt with was anger. The children I spoke to were angry with their peer; angry with themselves for not doing enough; angry at the adults for not preventing it. The teachers were angry with themselves; angry at management for not doing enough. But none of the staff I spoke to were angry with the victim. They all felt immense sadness and a sense of loss. For a few of them, it was the empty chair in the room that was the most distressing
  • The kids need to talk without a filter and without being interrupted. Once they run out of steam, they are ready to listen. But it takes time
  • For a lot of the kids, this was the first experience of death. But for everyone, this was the first experience of suicide 

I am writing this just as Mental Health Awareness Week has passed. The irony of this has not escaped me. GCSE exams are well under way. Those schools who offer AS Level exams are also in the middle of exam season. A Level pupils are either about to embark on study leave or have just started. Any programmes that schools might offer as a nod to Mental Health Awareness week, will possibly not be attended by those who need it most. 

These articles in The Guardian are worth a read:

The press has been full of articles about the rise of mental health issues in those who are in education and that the age at which children start manifesting mental health concerns is getting younger and younger. But then we read that highly respected educationalists make ludicrous suggestions ( https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/mar/30/advice-to-revise-7-hours-a-day-for-gcses-over-easter-unbelievable). Or teachers write in voicing their concerns about the demands that schools are placing on their own pupils ( https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2018/apr/28/secret-teacher-i-fear-for-the-wellbeing-of-students-under-pressure-to-perform)

As mental health practitioners, we need to become a little more vocal and demand that the government do something about this.

It is highly unlikely the exam regime is going to change. But we have to demand that there are better systems in place.

  • All schools need counsellors. The size of the school should be an immediate measure of the minimum number of counsellors
  • These counsellors should be on site for the full school day and should be made freely available to pupils and staff
  • These counsellors should be trained so that they can deal with tragedies such as suicide
  • They need to be a visible and an active member of the school community and not locked away in an office in an invisible part of the school. They should be involved in the delivery of PSHCE; they should be willing and able to speak at parent or information evenings; they should be called on for guidance by management (and listened to!)
  • Ideally, the counsellor should be familiar with the educational system and understand the particular needs of those in education

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has made it very clear that “Learning is an emotional business”.  We owe it to our young people to ensure that they are as emotionally sound as possible. For too many kids, school becomes a haven from a very disturbing and dysfunctional world. The school is becoming more and more important in every child’s development. We cannot prevent every onset of mental illness or tragedy. But society owes it to our children to damn-well try!