In our fast-paced, increasingly pressured society, there is no wonder that stress and mental health are becoming a big topic in not just the healthcare sector, but education sector too. A study examining the prevalence of mental health problems in children and adolescence found that there is a 10-20% incidence rate across the globe. However only a third of these children are receiving the medical interventions they need. Schools can play a vital role in addressing this shortfall, supporting their students at every stage of their time in education.
With approximately 50% of mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety, manifesting by age 14, it is imperative that we equip our young minds with not just the defence mechanisms they need to cope with today’s demands, but with reassurance that it is normal to be experiencing these emotions.
As young children we learn how to manage our emotions through observation of and reinforcement from the adults in our lives. As adults we have lived experiences dictating how to feel and how to cope with the feelings we are experiencing in specific situations. However as an adolescent our emotional psyches are still developing, but in contention with our physical and social beings. What makes matters worse is that care given from adults in this stage of life is more likely to be rejected, and neurological changes make it significantly more difficult to manage stress.
So what can we do to help our young people cope with the demands put upon them? Here are six strategies for prevention and management of stress, anxiety and low mood. Whilst this list is by no means exhaustive, you might find it a good starting point.
1. Teaching young people to reappraise
The practise of reappraisal is one that is brought into almost every type of psychological therapeutic intervention. This is the conscious decision to change an interpretation of a situation. As adults, if we are well practised at this, it comes almost naturally, but you would be surprised at how many people don’t find the time to take a step back and really look at the challenge they are facing. And that is exactly what most things we find difficult are – a challenge. Has one of your students ever turned to you and said ‘I can’t do this, it’s impossible’? Or perhaps you’ve said it yourself? Most things in life are not impossible, they just require a new way of thinking. Reappraisal is about looking at what is in front of you and consciously saying ‘this thing I can’t do is not impossible, it is a challenge’ because after all, a challenge seems much more achievable than the impossible.
2. Accepting mistakes can be made
Everyone makes mistakes, this is just part of life. However if we don’t learn that these mistakes aren’t detrimental to our lives, especially the small ones, making errors could have a serious effect on our esteem and perceived efficacy. Research on growth mindset dictates that a core part of development is the idea of ‘productive failure’. By praising the effort put in and normalising the mistake, children and adolescents are much more likely to manage constructive criticism well and in return preserve their self-esteem. Moreover, they would be much more likely to ask for help at a later date if this is the case.
3. Normalising difficulties
Unfortunately mental health difficulties are very common; in the UK mixed anxiety and depression is the most common problem with 8% of people meeting criteria for diagnosis. It is therefore important that we are helping our young people to understand that they are not alone if they are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression. Having said that, tact is vital here. We are a susceptible species in a world where labelling is all too common. The PSHE Association suggest teaching children how to describe emotions and develop coping strategies, rather than making a self-diagnosis.
4. Problem solving
One of the most powerful techniques for managing any mental health difficulty is knowing how to problem solve effectively. Teaching your young people, primary or secondary, a distinct step-by-step problem solving strategy can help set them up for any dilemma in life and give them back that sense of control lost with uncertainty.
5. Mindful relaxation techniques
The physical reaction we have to stress and anxiety is one that most people can relate to. Have you felt stressed and noticed an increase in blood pressure, sweating, feeling hot, feeling cold, having a loose stomach or getting the shakes? These are all evolutionary reactions to stress and come from our innate fight or flight response. Whilst not as helpful in today’s world – we don’t need to run from predators like we used to – we are still faced with these symptoms. One way to manage this, decrease heart rate and therefore anxiety is to practice relaxation. Remembering to breathe. Perhaps you could start each lesson with a couple of minutes of controlled breathing.
6. Know yourself
This is perhaps the most important of all – in order to help someone else fully, we need to know ourselves. And in knowing ourselves, we will be aware of when we need support ourselves and how best to help others. Be mindful of your own stress levels, your own difficulties and communicate these. But most of all – be kind to yourself.
Kieling C, Baker-Henningham H, Belfer M, et al. Child and adolescent mental health worldwide: evidence for action. Lancet. 2011;378:1515–1525.
Kessler, R. C., Berglund, P., Demler, O., Jin, R., Merikangas, K. R., & Walters, E. E. (2005). Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62, 593–602.
Burckhardt, R., Manicavasagar, V., Btterham, P. J., & Hadzi-Pavlovi, D. (2016). A randomized controlled trial of strong minds: A school-based mental health program combining acceptance and commitment therapy and positive psychology. Journal of School Psychology, 57, 41-52.
Saz, P. A., Bittencourt-Hewitt, A., & Sebastian, C. L. (2015). Neurocognitive bases of emotion regulation development in adolescence. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 15, 11–25.