Tag Archives: Mental Health

Mental Health a concern once again

One of the most striking topics to hit the news so far in the beginning of this new year is concerning mental health among our young people. In fact over the past couple of days it has been quite overwhelming.

Yesterday, BBC Newsbeat released an article about the number of children who are self-harming is increasingly significantly, some 20% rise in the number of 10-19 year olds admitted to hospital in the past year alone. The NHS figures show a number in the region of 29,000 admissions.

Teaching Unions have been quick to point to government cuts in spending on local services, which is leaving schools with much less access to expert medical help in comparison to previous years. While this may be true, there is plenty more to this story

Dr Max Davie, a spokesperson for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), says feeling pressured at school, or by friends, family and the media can all play their part in why young people self-harm. He states, ‘We have to remember that people self-harm because they’re in psychological distress that’s so severe that they prefer physical harm or physical pain to their psychological state. So the real question is why are more young people experiencing unbearable psychological distress? They are often isolated and if that isolation is extended to their own families that can be very serious and damaging. There aren’t enough services. If they reach out and talk about their problems there is often no-one there who is able to listen who is able to address their issues”

Caroline Kolek, a secondary school teacher and spokesperson for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “My experience in schools and talking to colleagues is that we are seeing a rise in self-harm, predominantly among girls but also among boys as well. My reaction to those figures is disappointment really. We recognise anxiety and depression is on the rise among young people. Unfortunately there is a correlation between the figures and a decrease in funding for mental health services – we’ve lost our emotional wellbeing workers who used to come into schools, we’ve lost youth workers and there is certainly a massive underfunding in mental health services for young people so many aren’t getting the support, and their families, aren’t getting the support they need. We schools really don’t have the support we had four or five years ago.”

One of the factors that I have seen crop up a lot is that of social media. More and more young people are accessing facebook and, despite the legal age to join facebook being 13, increasing numbers of children younger than that are also appearing, in fact, I’ve even heard children as young as 7 saying they have an account there. Now that has it’s own questions attached to it, but that is a massive opportunity for people to abuse behind the comfort of a computer screen, which can cause even more pyschological harm. Should we allow young people to communicate via social media, certainly in the way that they use it? I mean I for example use my Facebook and Twitter predominantly for promoting here or sharing interesting education stuff I find, others choose to use it to post pictures of themselves (these so-called ‘selfies’) or like Katie Hopkins, to stir up controversy for attention.

So what are the government planning on doing? Well Care Minister Normal Lamb had this statement: ‘Self-harm is a sign of serious emotional distress and it is crucial that young people get the help they need. I’ve brought together a team of specialists to look at how we can improve care – including in our schools – and we are investing £150m over the next five years to help young people deal with issues like self-harm and eating disorders.’

As someone who is not much older than some of these kids, I certainly can vouch for how much stress school can put on. I’ve asked the question of ‘do we put too much pressure on our children?’ a couple of times before, and I generally think we do. I mean look how many tests these children do every year. It seems to be the way we’re moving, and we all know how some children cannot cope with exam pressures. It’s not just exams either, it’s the general school life. I went to a highly rated grammar school and at times it felt like the pressure mounted all the time because of the expectations that were put on us. For those who make it, it’s a great success for the schools, but for those who are struggling, we can see what might happen.

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How Cambridge University almost killed me – The tale of Morwenna Jones

OK so you have done your A levels, got exceptional grades and will be heading off to a top university. Seems like a dream come true to be in with the best the country, and even the world, has to offer. However this is not always the case, in fact you’d be alarmed at what could actually happen. So today we’re going to look at the story of Morwenna Jones, a Cambridge University student. She told this recount in the Guardian:

“I had always been what they call a good student. In 2011, aged 18, I had two A*s and two As at A-level, various sporting successes and plenty of friends. I was president of more clubs and societies than the school needed. I was going to Cambridge University to study English. By most measures, things were going OK.

There was a problem, however – I had also developed an eating disorder. Over the two years before I started university, my body fluctuated and metamorphosed constantly. One week I would be a size zero, and my skeletal form would be found hunched scribbling notes instead of eating lunch. The next, I would look “normal” and hide the seemingly endless piles of food I would consume and then bring up again afterwards. Eventually I told my parents, and after six months I was referred for counselling with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service. Once a week I sat in a bleak room and explained to a woman called Lucy that my condition was connected to an obsessive desire to be the best. She listened politely, told me to keep a food diary and then discharged me eight weeks before I started university.

Eighteen months later I was in the passenger seat of my parents’ car, the colleges of Cambridge disappearing into the rain behind me. For a year and a half I had felt completely out of my depth, and finally cracked. No longer was I thought “talented” or “gifted” because I could work for eight hours or read an 800-page novel in a day. At Cambridge everyone I knew could do that. I was no longer special.

I know this might not sound like the world’s worst problem. What did I have to complain about? I was at a top university, with support – in theory – everywhere I looked. But misery has a way of finding you in the most unusual places, and for reasons that can seem incomprehensible, not least to oneself. Inside that bubble, where perfection was the norm, falling short of my own expectations tormented me. I wasn’t a size eight. I wasn’t on track for a first. I wasn’t a sporting Blue.

I dropped out in January 2013. When my parents collected me, I hadn’t left my room in two weeks. For two years I had been killing myself in the name of perfection, unable to enjoy being anything less than the best. As a result I had developed depression alongside severe bulimia.

The fact is that I am by no means unique. Suffering from an eating disorder and depression made me hardly more special among the Oxbridge student population than the A-levels that got me there. Last year a survey by student newspaper The Tab revealed that 21% of Cambridge students have been diagnosed with depression, while a further 25% think they may be depressed. At my all-girls’ college, Murray Edwards, 28% of students have experienced eating disorders. The numbers are reflected more widely – the National Union of Students surveyed 1,200 students and found that 20% believe they have a mental health problem, while 1 in 10 experience suicidal thoughts. Welfare teams at Cambridge alone anticipate 50 to 60 suicide attempts per year.

What I have seen in my time at university is an epidemic of students struggling with mental health difficulties. Every term more students “intermit” – the Cambridge term for taking some time out.

Katt Parkins, a fellow English student in her second year at Churchill College, understands the burden of expectation well. “It has been affecting me my whole life,” she says, recounting how she developed an eating disorder when she was just 11 years old. “I’d always either want to do something perfectly or not do it at all.” She intermitted in February this year, no longer able to cope with the prospect of a low grade. “I was obsessed with perfection. I think one of the reasons I intermitted was because I still really wanted to do well and get a high 2:1 or a first,” she says. “If I’d achieved less, my health would probably have become even worse.”

At Britain’s universities many students crumble as they realise they are only average-sized fish in a much larger pond. Part of the problem is that while we are used to praising or criticising students, it is unusual to sympathise with them. Even to themselves, the whining sounds like “poor me”. But the reality is that the pressure is putting thousands of bright young people at risk of serious mental illness.

Oxbridge is a close-knit collegiate system. Within this system, small communities of extremely motivated individuals live together in the intimate confines of an environment characterised by centuries of academic achievement. Katt Parkins likens it to an Etch-a-Sketch. “You know when you just have to slide off what’s already there and focus on a new drawing?” she says. “It’s like that. You have to focus on your work, so you suppress personal things that you should actually work through. Eventually it builds and builds.”

Students like her are the reason why Oxford academic Nicola Byrom founded the charity Student Minds five years ago, when she was a graduate student. Having suffered from a mental illness herself as a teenager, she wanted to provide students with support.

“There’s certainly historical data that suggests that there is greater prevalence of mental health difficulties in Oxford and Cambridge,” says Byrom. “Living with a small group of competitive people isn’t easy, and you also then have a competitive environment. I think Oxford and Cambridge are probably happy to admit that they pre-select people at high risk of developing mental health difficulties, because they’re taking high-achieving perfectionist young people, who come to be the best.”

But things could be changing. Judith Carlisle, headteacher of the independent Oxford High School, has started a scheme to combat the rise of “unhelpful perfectionism” among her students. It’s called The Death of Little Miss Perfect. Teaching students that “it’s fine not to get everything right”, the scheme includes tests that get progressively harder within a time limit, preventing pupils from answering all of the questions. Its goal, as Carlisle recently stated, is to teach students that “perfectionism is only captured in a moment” and is “not achievable long term”. As well as encouraging students to embrace phrases such as “Have a go” and “Nobody’s perfect”, she’s urging them to avoid “going for something that, if they don’t get it, will destroy them”, and that includes universities. Her advice? “Don’t aim for Oxford if not getting in will destroy you – or if going will destroy you.”.

The last statement might sound confusing, but it sums up some of the ambivalence I feel about Cambridge. If my school had offered a similar scheme, perhaps I wouldn’t have wound up taking a painful, expensive and disruptive year out from university. The pressures of Cambridge broke me but also gave me a whole new perspective on my academic life. If Carlisle aims to teach pupils that “real failing is failing to have a go”, then she also needs to teach them to “have a go” at Oxbridge, and, if necessary, learn from their mistakes.

Byrom is also unconvinced that schools should be warning pupils off Oxbridge altogether. “Schools ought to be thinking about what environment is going to best support a student to thrive through their degree,” she explains, drawing on her own experience of completing an undergraduate course at Nottingham before starting a postgraduate degree at Oxford. “Even for the ‘bad’ perfectionist, Oxbridge could still be a great environment. It’s very difficult to tell someone that a certain atmosphere isn’t going to be right for him or her.”

Meredith Leston and Elise Morton, at Oxford and Cambridge respectively, also identify with the challenges and opportunities provided by Oxbridge. “I knew things were bad when I tried to read my neuroscience textbook and I may as well have been starring at the phonebook,” says Leston, who is about to enter her second year of experimental psychology. “My passion to learn about the brain is what got me into Oxford and it’s what I am dedicating my life to. The things that mattered most to me and defined who I was as a person suddenly barely registered. I felt completely lost.”

Morton agrees. “I remember in the second year just suddenly realising that I was feeling really, really down but without a cause,” she says. “It was when I actually realised just how good my life was that I suddenly went: ‘Hang on, why the hell are you feeling like this?’ I took stock of everything that was good in my life and yet noticed that I was still crying every day. I had to ask myself why I was doing that. I don’t want to say: ‘Oh it was Cambridge’, but I feel like the intense stress of a Cambridge degree has to have an impact upon your mental health.”

Despite all this, however, neither of them has any regrets about their choice of university. Morton graduated this year with a degree in modern and medieval languages. Now studying in Los Angeles, she is also a part-time mental health activist, campaigning for awareness charity Time to Change. She says struggling at university helped her gain perspective. “At first it was difficult to accept that I wasn’t going to be the best. But once I did, I felt able to be more creative and take more risks.”

These issues are problems across all universities, of course. It’s just that they can seem most concentrated where the pressure is greatest. “University is a tough time for a lot of people, whatever university you’re at,” adds Georgina Aisbitt, who works for Student Minds in Oxford. “Your informal support systems, like friends and family, and your formal support systems, like therapists and GPs, are left at home. You add pressure from the university to achieve and you’re putting students in a situation where they are going to be comparing themselves to others. That’s a pretty hefty combination, and it creates quite a tough environment. It’s important that schools try to help their students and promote discussions about mental health.”

When I returned to Cambridge in January I was nervous. I felt that I had tamed some of the anxious, depressed teenager who had struggled before, but would I be able to cope with the isolation? I took a book out of the library and sat in a café on King’s Parade working on my essay for that week. I sat in that café for four hours until long after the sun had set and the bikes had stopped speeding along under King’s College. For the first time since I started Cambridge, I read a book and enjoyed every page.

Eight months later, the perfectionist in me is dead and I don’t miss her. I was discharged from mental health services at the end of last year, and I stopped seeing a therapist in June. The eating disorder will probably always be at the back of my mind, but in many ways it has been a full recovery. I still have to be careful – I don’t drink to excess or sleep in, and I try to avoid environments which I know might be tricky. I feel I now have the mental equipment to deal with life. Excellence is fine, but nobody’s perfect.”

I think lessons can be learnt from this. It is very easy to get sucked in to going to the top universities like Oxbridge or other members of the Russell Group for example, but if it is not right for you, scenario’s like Morwenna’s can and probably will happen. So if you are looking to go to university, here is my advice for you:

  1. Think very carefully about the course you want to study before looking at universities. Not all universities offer every single course and sometimes universities may not offer the course at all.
  2. Once you’ve decided on what you would like to study, then start to look at universities. Think carefully about where you would like to go, and have a browse of the league tables, not just for the current year, but previous years gone by so you get an idea of where they are going. Yes I know league tables don’t necessarily reflect every single part of the university but if the university is slipping down the league tables for the course you want to study, then it can be quite off-putting.
  3. This one is probably the most vital. Before you apply to any of the universities, you MUST go on at least one open day at the university to get a feel for what to expect. If you don’t, then you might find yourself winding up at a university and dropping out pretty quickly as it’s not what you wanted. Remember you are going to be committing anywhere between 3 and 5 years of your life to this course, as well as an awful lot of money with tuition fees alone at £9k a year. Don’t blow that sort of money on somewhere that isn’t right for you. Go to the open days, get as much information as you possibly can out of them, including information on support networks and other options should things not work out, because you never know if or when you might need them.
  4. When applying to universities, remember that universities only want the best candidates. Not all courses require an interview, but for education you do. These interviews are either grouped or paired or individual interviews so be prepared for a variety of situations. In my experience, universities tend to like those students who can use their learning from their A levels and apply it effortlessly to the particular field. In my case, I made reference to a lot of psychological theory, particularly developmental psychology, in my interviews to back up my beliefs. Worked for me as I applied for 5 universities, and got 5 interviews and 5 offers.
  5. Don’t be too down if a university doesn’t pick you. Remember that thousands of other people are competing with you for that place, and you are potentially applying for 5 universities. Do your best to stand out from the crowd, but be true to yourself.
  6. When you do go to the university that you have chosen, if you’ve taken thorough enough care of it, you should feel at home, so make sure you build up a social group, maybe join a few societies that the university’s student union offer you, and maximise your time there. Honestly the years will fly by, so make the most of them.

Mental health checks at seven?

An academic from Cambridge has called for children as young as seven years old to be screened for mental health.

In an article for the British Medical Journal, Simon Nicholas Williams argues that screening pupils at that age would mean problems could be diagnosed and treated earlier. Mr Williams, from the university’s Institute of Public Health, said three-quarters of adult mental disorders were “extensions of juvenile disorders”. “If left untreated, these can lead to more serious social and economic problems in adolescence and adulthood, related to crime, unemployment, and suicide, for example,” he wrote.

He said early intervention and prevention of mental health problems should be aimed at young people. “Introducing mental health screening in schools could enable early diagnosis and treatment of childhood mental health problems and therefore reduce many of the costs associated with adolescent and adult mental health problems,” he wrote.

He said mental health problems cost the UK an estimated £105bn a year. “Physical health checks have been done in schools for more than a century, so why not mental health checks?”, he added.

Russell Hobby, leader of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), which represents most primary heads, said the idea was an interesting one. But any such scheme would have to be carefully handled, he said, with the checks carried out by experts. “I think we should be checking children for much more than whether they have mastered phonics,” he said. “The evidence suggests that the earlier we start checking people, the better. But schools themselves are not qualified to do this and health professionals would have to be involved.”

Mr Hobby added: “We would have to be quite careful about any labels and stigma attached to this. It would have to be done in a sensitive fashion.”

In his article, Simon Williams said the “stigma associated with a mental health diagnosis is likely a deterrent, particularly for parents”, as well as the financial costs involved. “However, a programme in which all children are screened, rather than just those who are traditionally deemed at risk, would likely have a de-stigmatising effect,” he said. “Although many mental health disorders are more common among children from lower socio-economic groups, others, such as anxiety disorders, are just as common, if not more common, among children from higher socio-economic groups.”

He said such screening could be carried out in groups “cheaply”, at an estimated cost of £27 per child, amounting to £18.5 million for all of the UK’s seven-year-olds.

Lucie Russell, from the Young Minds charity, said mental health screening was a good idea if there was good support for children “with emerging mental health problems”, but current provision was “patchy”. “Screening as part of early intervention is theoretically a positive step forward, but it must be backed up with comprehensive support and treatment for any identified children and their families,” she said.

I can see what the aim here is, but there is a niggling thought in my mind: what is going to happen to those who are diagnosed with issues, and what if those diagnoses prove to be inaccurate? This could be placing a label on a child which can have a serious effect on both the child and other children around them. Seven years old is the age where children start to understand everything around them, so it is most likely going to be difficult to handle. I do like the theory however. Anything that can resolve issues going into the teenage years or even beyond that before they can take a hold of a child must be a help rather than a hinderance, unless of course I’m missing something.

Mental Health a new subject?

Mental health lessons should be on the timetable in every secondary school in the UK a new charity has urged.

Too many pupils with symptoms of depression or anxiety are let down or ignored, claims charity MindFull.

It has launched a new online counselling service to support and advise 11- to 17-year-olds.

MindFull’s founder Emma-Jane Cross said poor mental health among young people was “one of the last great medical taboos in the UK today”.

The charity’s inaugural report calls for a “sea-change” in approaches to young people’s mental health.

In her foreword, Ms Cross describes the scale of the problem as “epic” with thousands “teetering on the brink” of serious mental illness, risking “terrible long-term effects” for both individuals and society at large.

Too many “are having to resort to harming themselves on purpose in order to cope, or worse still are thinking about ending their own lives”, she added later.

The report calls for awareness of the importance of mental health to be integrated into every aspect of young people’s development particularly in schools and health services.

“We need to move away from only tackling the symptoms of acute poor mental health and well-being to focus on education, prevention and early intervention,” say the authors.

“Young people need to be encouraged to speak out about their mental health and well-being and feel confident that, when they do, they will receive the support they need as swiftly and as easily as possible.”

The charity says its new online support service will help do this by providing professional counselling and peer support for young people.

It says it will also be working with schools to educate young people on how to cope with mental health issues.

The charity has the backing of Labour leader Ed Miliband and of campaigners for better mental health support for young people.

Psychologist Prof Tanya Byron said: “Just as we look after our children’s physical health, it’s vital we offer support for their mental well-being.

“Children and young people are clearly not getting the help they need. That’s why this new online support from MindFull is so important.”

Lucie Russell of the YoungMinds charity said: “Children and young people are growing up in a toxic climate. They exist in a 24/7 online world where they never switch off, where cyberbullying, consumerism and pornography, sexting and the pressure to have the perfect body bombard them daily, where any exam grade below a C means failure and employment prospects are bleak.

“We know from our extensive work with young people that the support they so desperately need when they aren’t coping is grossly lacking but we also know from services that they are under huge funding pressures and are overwhelmed with demand.”

Health minister Norman Lamb said the government was “placing an unprecedented emphasis on mental health”, particularly for children and young people.

“More than a third of children and young people now live in an area where children and adolescent mental health services have been transformed.

“We are investing £54m into improving access to mental health treatments for children and young people.”

This news comes too little too late for me really. I used to be one of these children with mental health issues, and those were the most difficult days of my rather complicated early life. I never had any treatment or anything, I had to find a way out myself, which fortunately I managed to do. I was one of the lucky ones though, I really want to see more being done to develop children and young people in not just an academic or physical way. Do I think Mental Health lessons is the answer? I’m not sure. It would be nice to have a pilot study in schools in a deprived area for example to get an idea of it’s effectiveness before adding it to the curriculum before we can really give a clear cut yes or no to the idea.

What do you think? Should Mental Health be a lesson in schools or should other measures be taken? Comment and share 🙂