The current debate about a surge in anorexia among girls at independent schools highlights a wider variety of worrying and unnecessary pressures being placed on young people today. Some of the illnesses arising from these pressures are directly eating- related; others are the manifestation of the stresses placed on girls or that they place on themselves to conform or to succeed.
When a television soap has a storyline on self-harming, there are problems in schools across the country. The writers will no doubt say that they mirror what happens in society, but they also escalate such actions and probably contribute to a self- perpetuating behaviour. The first time I came across self-harming was after Home and Away ran it as a storyline more than a decade ago.
At academically strong schools, the pressure of competing with students worldwide for places at top universities is increasing. Pupils are aware that they are in a global market and need finely tuned CVs for university applications. There is a general ratcheting up in pressure for all high- achieving students globally.
If you read a Ucas personal statement of any student applying to a top university today, you would be overwhelmed by the amount they have read, achieved and packed into their young lives, certainly compared with what their parents had managed to fit in by the same age.
The education secretary Michael Gove’s proposed change to a numerical system for GCSE results with greater differentiation at the higher end has the potential for devastating effects on the mental health of our brightest teenagers. Students currently need a fistful of A and A* grades but in the future will have to aim for much narrower numbered grade bands. If you raise the bar higher, bright teenagers will simply ask you how high they must jump. This will only add to the pressure on those embarking on exam courses from September 2015, but for what benefit?
Likewise changes to A-level structure will further increase pressure on sixth- formers. With everything resting on final exams after two years of study, in a world that has changed so much since we moved away from this system, there will undoubtedly be an increase in mental health problems.
The changes create a staggeringly inflexible system. Year 11 students, for example, are going to lose their ability to dip into a range of new AS subjects, such as economics or politics, to see if they enjoy them before having to commit to a full A-level.
Along with the responsibilities that schools share with parents to alleviate such pressures on youngsters, government too has a significant role to play.
The government’s drive to tackle obesity has created an anti-sugar culture in which headlines such as “Sugar is the new tobacco” are sometimes taken too seriously: teenagers can take these messages at face value and cut out all sugar instead of eating a balanced diet. While the intention to tackle obesity is clearly right, the headlines can affect the behaviour of teenagers who are not the target audience.
Our sixth-formers tell me that teenage boys are also at risk in that they cut carbohydrates from their diet and replace the carbs with protein. The emphasis on a balanced, healthy diet is being lost in the drive to tackle obesity.
Social media affects the mental wellbeing of teenagers. There is now no “down time” from the pressure of being cool, beautiful and funny. Teenagers have limited ability to escape from their peer group, which leads to a lack of emotional space. Of course, they also face the constant bombardment from celebrity images in magazines such as Heat. Facebook and Instagram, too, create a false image of what girls think they should look like. Nobody posts a normal photo, only one in which they look gorgeous, and so they lose a sense of what real people look like.
Every school should be addressing the need for emotional resilience in pupils. At Guildford High we have several strategies to try to reduce the pressures on our girls, such as not setting any homework in holidays. The incidence of serious issues has to date been very low, but we take nothing for granted and are constantly working to ensure that that remains the case. We have a supportive pastoral team, nurses, a doctor and counsellors on site to identify and address any issues should they arise.
As a culture we need a better messaging about “yes, be healthy, be active . . . but it’s OK to be you”.
As a generation, teenagers today will need more mental health support than any previous generation because on a day-to-day basis they are having to manage so much more.
Article published in the Sunday Times, March 2nd 2014. Available here (subscription needed).