Teenagers at the centre of a mental health crisis

The teachers’ strike is just one of the disruptions facing young people today. We need to think more deeply about why so many are so anxious and depressed.

silhouette of a person with grey paper scrunched up around to depict depression


Like many parents, I have every sympathy with the teachers going on strike. Over the years it has been patently obvious that school budgets have suffered and that teachers have been leaving the profession in large numbers. The list of leavers at our secondary school gets longer every year. At my son’s primary school fines were brought in for lateness to boost the school coffers. In an unprecedented move, the secondary school and many others joined forces to ask parents to lobby their MPs for more money a few years ago. My son, now at secondary school, reported the other day that he hadn’t had food tech for many months because there simply aren’t any teachers. They’ve all left and they’ve had trouble recruiting anyone else. My sister, a teacher, stated that her teaching assistant was removed and she had to take a five year old to the toilet at the back of the class and leave the door open because she could not leave the class unattended.

But it is also true that the last three years have been incredibly disruptive of children’s education. I have a daughter going through A Levels at the moment. This will be her first big exams in exam conditions. It is fair to say the experience is fairly stressful on top of everything else that her year group has been through, including, in many cases, grief. Depression and anxiety seem to be commonplace among this age group and Covid has either exacerbated this or, in some cases, seems to have helped while lockdowns were in place.

It feels as if the A Levels have been hanging over the upper sixth for ever. It’s not just the teachers’ strikes that are disrupting things. There are other things, transport strikes, school buildings in a state of disrepair [at our school the upper sixth have been camping in the exam hall for the last months due to the dangers posed by the roof on the sixth form block], teacher absences or just a lack of teachers and so forth. Before Christmas we were preparing for blackouts. It feels like we are on perpetual crisis alert as the social infrastructure around us crumbles.

And many young people are worried not just about the A Levels, but about what comes next – life. So many of them seem poleaxed, besieged as they are by strident messages and impossible expectations and demands on all sides. How do you navigate your way through all of this? And how can parents help their children because mental health is one thing for yourself, but seeing your children suffer and not being able to help them is far worse?

The health service can’t cope. They tend to offer CBT counselling if you’re lucky and a long waiting list. We’ve done CBT counselling. It mainly seemed to be about sleep routines and the like. It’s not much use if your child can’t get motivated to get out of bed in the morning. There is also the inevitable link to some mental health platform. To say we are woefully equipped to deal with the mental health crisis facing young people would be an understatement. I recall a family member who was in a psychiatric unit being given CBT. ‘How do you feel on a scale of 1-10 today?’ she was asked. She had been knocking her head against a wall and had scars all down her arms. ‘One? That’s great. What would it take to get you to do a two, do you think?’ CBT may be cheap and perhaps it works for some, but it is completely inadequate for dealing with many serious mental health problems.

Perhaps the kind of pressure we have been through in the last few years, combined with ongoing school pressure, are not things that the health service can deal with. They are things that maybe require some sort of coming together and an interrogation of what we truly value. Instead everyone is fragmented. Perhaps we all need to find our own way through all of this, but that is very hard for young people who don’t have the resilience that comes from years of experiencing life. Moreover, there are very few services for all the teenagers grieving from the impact of Covid – everything seems geared at very young children or people who are over 18. And yet teenagers’ friends who have not experienced trauma just do not understand any of it – why should they? – and therefore cannot help. Often the result is that grieving teenagers feel even more alone. Loneliness makes grief worse. Every book I have read talks about the importance of close friends who take the time to listen or to take you out of yourself. I feel that loneliness as a grown-up, but there are groups where I can speak to others who have been through similar experiences. Friendship is what keeps you sane in grief and GPs can’t, unfortunately, prescribe that.

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