How returning to school impacts student mental health.
Starting a new academic year can be stressful for everyone, let alone those with existing mental health issues. Students often feel under academic and social pressures that can make it hard to get started. The pandemic may have made returning to school more difficult, but rates of suicidality amongst young people are typically known to increase at these times and suggest that the pressures of this transition pre-exist Covid-19. Academic institutions as well as parents and carers need to be alert to this and ensure they are finding ways of supporting students during these challenging periods.
Many students find returning to school or starting somewhere new after the summer break particularly daunting for a number of reasons. Some students have concerns about social aspects such as interacting with other students, fitting in and making friends, or finding people to sit with. Other students are more concerned about academic pressures such as understanding and completing the expected work, being called on in class, or managing the workload. Some also have concerns about having the correct equipment, being able to get to lessons on time, or having to take public transport to school. If we consider that some students may be worried about some or all of these factors at once it becomes clear why rates of anxiety and stress might be higher in this group. It is clear why students returning to or starting school for the first time are likely to experience stress, anxiety, or worry.
With COVID-19 leaving long lasting effects on young people’s mental health – social anxiety, health anxiety, school avoidance, eating disorders, loneliness, and uncertainty, are all issues that education providers must be prepared to recognise, intervene on, and deal with in students. Research has found that 95% of school staff noted an increase in low self-esteem, depression, and sustained feelings of anger in students in the 2021-22 school year, with many saying how the pandemic has negatively affected students’ learning engagement, behaviour, and progress, as well as staff workload and wellbeing . Where we know that students are already under stress at the start of the school year, COVID-19 has only exacerbated these issues.
Statistics show that young people aged 10-19 are at higher risk of suicide at stress points at the start of term and mid-term, during exam periods . Research summarised by Johnathan Singer at the 2022 Suicide Prevention Summit showed that during the first lockdown of 2020, where learning was conducted remotely, the number of suicides in young people aged 10-19 significantly decreased. This has been accounted to reasons such as reduced social pressures and bullying as well as improved family relationships and longer sleep. Understanding trends like this throughout the school year can be an indicator of the areas and time periods where student mental health should be prioritised. For example, stressing the importance of factors outside of school such as home relationships and getting enough sleep, as well as working within school to reduce the significance of social pressures and occurrences of bullying.
Schools, colleges, and universities are not only a place for learning, but also a source of support and community for students and their families. This is why it is so important for community members to be vocal in supporting students, by expressing understanding and encouraging conversations about mental health in the education setting. Creating an environment which integrates and prioritises the mental health of students is crucial for reducing school-related stress and enhancing the general wellbeing of students, including emotional and behavioural health, as well as improving the quality of learning and outcomes in students . Studies have found that a positive school culture is associated with positive development, risk prevention and promoting health and mental health .
Teachers are the most commonly contacted mental health support, but the main focus of education reforms have been about the curriculum and academic outcomes . Although not every school will have access to a fully qualified counsellor, it is important for teachers to have some level of training in helping young people to cope with mental health issues, ensuring that they are emotionally available so that young people feel seen and heard and referred onto appropriate agencies. Government guidance encourages schools and colleges to identify a senior mental health lead to oversee the whole school/college approach to mental health and wellbeing . This is crucial in early recognition and intervention to reduce the impact of mental health problems . The government also offer senior lead training that helps with using existing resources to promote good mental health, identifying students who need support, and working with local services. A promising statistic indicates that over half of secondary schools and 1 in 3 primary schools accessed this training from October 2021 to March 2022 .
It is also the responsibility of students’ parents and families to recognise signs of stress or anxiety. Indicators of school-related anxiety include not wanting to get ready for or go to school, excessive worrying about small issues, feeling sick, stomach or headaches, not doing schoolwork or a drop in grades, acting out at school or at home, and social withdrawal. It is important for parents to acknowledge that issues like this can be manifestations of poor mental health, so that they can develop a safe, healthy, and understanding line of communication with their children. This can enable the young person to feel comfortable discussing what may be contributing to their mental health so that they can receive the support and help they need in order to improve their school experience.
Overall, there is responsibility for people at every level of involvement in young people’s lives, whether it be family, schools, colleges, and universities, to understand and work towards resolving issues surrounding their mental health. This includes staying vigilant to signs of distress but also understanding that issues can present differently in everyone, and so may not always be so easy to spot. Working together towards a safe space where students feel they can disclose any problems they are having – big or small – allows them to feel supported and can prevent the development of mental health issues.
It can also be helpful to consider seeking professional support. Here at Surrey Therapy Practice, we have a team of professionals specialised in therapy for children and adolescents, who are able to help if you or someone you know is struggling with stress, anxiety or any other mental health issues related to returning to school or college. Get in touch or make an enquiry here.
3. Atkins, M. S., Hoagwood, K. E., Kutash, K., & Seidman, E. (2010). Toward the integration of education and mental health in schools. Administration and policy in mental health, 37(1-2), 40–47. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10488-010-0299-7