How schools are tackling the impact of GCSEs on mental health
With students approaching a new academic year and this year's GCSE and A-level results just out, discussions have once again been turned to the level of stress that exams, particularly GCSEs, bring on young minds. With the exam intensity increasing each year, levels of stress are also on the rise. The question is whether this stress is a natural motivator, or whether it pushes youngsters too hard – to the point where there is a possibility of developing mental health issues.
Childline delivered 2,795 counselling sessions for exam stress between 2018 and 2019. One third of these sessions took place during the exam season months. The most common age for students to seek this help was between 15 and 16, with girls five times more likely to ask for help with mental health than boys.
Within this article, we explore the difference in healthy stress and unhealthy stress and highlight that our current exam system may well be aggravating stress levels, as well as the line between stress and mental health conditions and how the two relate to each other.
Identifying mental health issues
The fact is that healthy stress, toxic stress and mental health are different to one another, although the terms ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’ are often used interchangeably.
We go through stress to help deal with present threats. Whether this is pressure at work, home, or school, this current pressure causes adrenaline to be released and cause a feeling of stress. This is a natural reaction in a short-term scenario.
However, if we experience too much stress or if the chemical adrenaline lingers in our bloodstreams for too long, then we can experience anxiety. Anxiety brings a whole host of symptoms with it, including sickness, panic attacks, and dizziness. Anxiety continues to pressure a person long after the pressure-causing event has gone. This can be caused by an internal chemical imbalance, hence the prolonged effects even without a current, identifiable event causing the feelings. This in and of itself can prove upsetting for an individual with anxiety, as they feel there’s no observable reason for them to feel like this.
In a nutshell, stress is something we experience when we come across immediate, present threats or pressure. Anxiety is usually longer lasting, and often deals with concerns of the future; it is a response to hypothetical, potential pressures to come. Where stress is a response to a currently occurring issue, anxiety has been considered as an intolerance for uncertainty.
When stress is embraced
Healthy stress is quite beneficial, but the downside is that its temporary. It is born out of our fight-or-flight instinct, where present threats or pressures took the form of predators more than academic performance!
Experiencing stress before an exam is normal. The adrenaline is all part of the body and brain getting ready to perform. It is important that students are aware that a little stress is nothing to fear. It’s normal, and it’s helpful. With a healthy, manageable level of stress, people often perform well.
Of course, the key element here is ‘manageable’. When this healthy burst of stress builds and spirals out of control, affecting areas of life outside of the exam hall, then it most certainly isn’t helpful, nor is it healthy. If a student finds themselves feeling stressed outside the exam hall, and that that stress is impacting home life or classroom behaviour, it’s time to look at the issue from the viewpoint of anxiety.
Anxiety’s damage comes in, lingers and gets tangled with everything. Often, people suffering from anxiety note that little to nothing seems enjoyable anymore, as there’s something in everything they do that makes them worry more or their feelings of anxiety are so overwhelming that they cannot focus on anything else. Simply ‘taking their mind off it’ isn’t possible.
Experiencing jittery feelings and nerves before exams is one thing. But when that worry lingers long after you’ve left the exam hall and starts to extend out into future ‘what if’ scenarios, that’s when anxiety could be developing. Often, anxiety is characterised as a feeling of ‘doom’ in these future worries. The worst-case scenario is, in the throes of anxiety, suddenly a fact rather than a hypothetical. With this in mind, how can schools provide for students in order to ensure stress remains at healthy, short bursts and not a lingering, damaging, and often harmful condition?
What schools can do to help
Schools can provide a number of methods to help their students in the run up to their exams:
• Encourage achievement but avoid undue pressure. — Particularly for high-achievers, the pressure to perform perfectly in exams can be a lot to handle. These students can feel that they not only need to achieve the grade for themselves, but for their parents and teachers or they will risk letting them down. Many may feel shocked or ashamed if they gain a grade 8 in their exam when they were ‘expected’ to get a grade 9. Assure them that this top-tier grade is still that: a top-tier grade, and more than enough to see them on to future success!
• Remind students that exams are important, but they are not the most important thing in life. — We’re not saying tell your students the exams don’t matter; of course they do. But make sure the scale is realistic. You want, and expect, them to do their best. Achieving good results here will build a great foundation for their lives. But remind them that a failed exam will not mark them for the rest of their lives, nor will it be the defining of them: let them have a chuckle at some of Jeremy Clarkson’s tongue-in-cheek tweets each year during exam season, such as: “If you’re a level results are disappointing, don’t worry. I got a C and two Us, and I’m currently on a superyacht in the Med.”
• Arrange stress-buster sessions. — Learning how to handle and manage stress is a vital skill. Particularly at school, students will probably be thinking of their upcoming exams while in the classroom revising. It can feel like there’s no escape, so be the one to release that pressure valve on stress with an occasional stress-busting lesson instead of intense revision. Whether this is with a puppy-hugging day to look forward to as a special reward for working so hard, heading out to the school garden with a trowel and some mulch for some relaxing plant-attending, or even a one-off lesson of stress-busting techniques like breathing exercises and mindfulness, treat stress-management as a lesson and exam technique just as vital as going over those notes and books again.
What parents can do to help
There are a few things to advise parents to do if they suspect their child is suffering high levels of exam stress or full-blown anxiety:
• Do not say ‘we just dealt with it in my day!’ — When anyone has a problem, the last thing they want to hear is how someone else has it worse. A problem that is causing someone to suffer doesn’t lose value just because someone else has suffered more! In particular, no child appreciates their parent indirectly telling them that they don’t have it as hard as their parents did. Parents saying they ‘just got on with it’ isn’t helpful at all, nor it is wholly accurate. Exams such as GCSEs have changed a lot in recent years, and it’s not possible to accurately compare the 80s and 90s secondary school exam experience with your child’s. Many 16-year-olds could have as many as 28 exams to sit, and that number doesn’t look any less intimidating by being told ‘everyone else managed in my day!’
• Do say positive and constructive things! — By constructive, we don’t mean ‘you should study more’ or ‘your big brother studied 14 hours a day for his exams!’. Again, comparisons are not helpful; everyone studies differently. Some people take in information best in an eight-hour-study-party then a day off, where others study best in multiple 20 minute bursts with a short break in between. By all means, offer strategies you found helpful, but don’t present them as the ‘correct’ way compared to what they are already doing. Also, be sure to remind the child that while the exams are important, they are not completely life-defining; assure them that even if the exam doesn’t go well, there are so many options to re-sit or re-evaluate. One failed exam will not bring their hopes and dreams to a halt.
• Let them vent and listen. — Sometimes, you don’t need to say anything. Sometimes, we just need someone to listen to our deepest fears and worries. Let children vent their concerns, particularly after the exam, and don’t criticise them as being over-dramatic or needless in these fears.
• Teach them to relax between exams. — Treat days out, as well as reminding them that a day off studying isn’t wrong, can go a long way to managing stress down to those healthy short bursts and not a prolonged, weeks-on-end pressure. Assure them that rest days in studying are beneficial and will actually help them retain more of what they have revised. Get them out of the house for a bit, and don’t make them feel guilty for it!
• If you suspect a child is under too much stress or suffering from anxiety, encourage medical advice. — A mental health problem is, by and large, chemical in nature. It is long past due that it lost its taboo, particularly among parents and children. The brain is an organ and, like any other organ in the body, for some people it may not produce the right amount of a necessary chemical. If your child’s stomach didn’t produce the chemicals it needed to be healthy, it would be a trip to the doctor to find out what to do next. It’s no different for matters of the brain and its chemistry — if you suspect you child has a mental health problem at play when it comes to dealing with and processing stress, do not be afraid of approaching a GP.