Is mental health becoming a serious issue in exam students?

It has become an increasingly worrying issue that the contents of the new exams has burdened students with an abundance of unnecessary stress, which may have a detrimental effect on their mental health, both now and in the future. With 29% of the 201 teen suicides in 2014 taking place whilst waiting for exam results, or the exams themselves, (information from a report on the BBC website), the focus is now on creating a positive place to air issues and concerns.

People are beginning to try and tackle this issue in many different ways. A good example of this is the ‘Gregathlon’, in which Greg James will be completing several challenges: including climbing the three highest peaks in the UK and cycling the 500 miles between them. So far, Greg has raised a mountainous amount of £739,425! Since last year, the money raised by Sport Relief has helped by funding more than 50,000 adults and young people in full time education living in the UK with mental health problems.

Having interviewed a current 6th form student who is now doing her A-level courses. But this interview talks about their perspective on the GCSE’s when they were in Year 11.

Do you think students are being supported enough throughout exams?

“I think there is support within school, however it isn’t necessarily accessible to students who aren’t already registered within the student welfare system and if there is access to it you have to wait a while and often you can only see them once because of their schedule.”

Do you think the amount of stress put on students with the new exam system is fair?

“I think that the amount of stress put onto students is unnecessary but it also depends on your home life because personally my parents didn’t put much stress on me but I know that some students have the added stress from their parents. As for teachers, I think especially if you are a high achiever, the teachers put more pressure on you. Even if they try not to, there’s always an expectation for you to achieve a certain amount.”

How do you think large amounts of stress will affect students in the future?

“In a way I think it may prepare them for university and careers in the future, however I think the amount of stress is still unnecessary. Young people should be allowed to be young people and have free time as well as working in school.”

As there is not the financial provision to be able to offer most pupils support, there are a vast amount who are struggling with mental health issues who cannot be afforded the time by the student welfare system. This means it’s less accessible to obtain support during the GCSE process. Its support service, Hope Line UK, has seen a large rise in contacts from young people and parents in recent years, quadrupling since 2013. Exam stress can lead to many different mental illnesses, like depression and anxiety, panic attacks, low self-esteem, self-harming and suicidal thoughts and worsening of pre-existing mental health conditions.

We interviewed the Head of the current Year 12 to see her perspective of the current GCSE system and her view on exam stress and mental health.

“Exams have always been stressful and I’m sure in every generation there has always been a section of the population who has not coped very well with the stress but it does feel like a bigger problem. More pressure from schools as they are ‘judged’ on their results; more pressure from parents as they feel life is not as ‘easy’ to get a job as it was for them and they want more for their kids; more pressure from the media, government, society – the list goes on.”

Recent statistics show that students facing exams in 2019 are likely to face over 9 hours more of exams than in 2016 (information from the Independent). This added pressure is leading students to take drastic action to distract from their anxiety, this can include self-harming, eating disorders and, in severe cases, suicide. Child Line results from the past few years show that 11% more students have been coming to them for counselling sessions (information from the NSPCC website) because of exam stress and pressure that is put on them from their parents and schools. This shows that the pressure that exams are putting on pupils is growing massively because of the new curriculum and changing grade boundaries.

However, one could also argue that the rising level of students coming to health professionals for help is a sign of a more open society as it demonstrates that we are becoming more comfortable discussing issues of mental health with people who can help. Another source (The Guardian) states that over half of mental health issues in the UK are in students from the age of 14 onwards, and that 75% of mental health issues will appear by age 18. These ages are the main years when students are studying for exams which leads to the issue of why the level of support among teenagers is not changing when the amount of mental health issues in young people clearly is.

Overall, the exam years of secondary school can be the hardest years of people’s lives and it does not help with stress and anxiety when students can’t even look at exam papers. Since the recent changes in the curriculum, including the grade boundaries changing and the whole exam content being completely rearranged, many students are struggling with the whole premises of not being able to study old exam papers and example texts. This adds yet another level of stress to students as they feel completely unprepared for exams, which creates an even bigger impact on them. Can society address this before the situation gets out of hand?

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