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6 min read

Student Well-being: Understanding the Challenges and Encouraging Resilience

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Student Well-being: Understanding the Challenges and Encouraging Resilience | Medical Tracker
11:43

In the 21st century, children and students can have a lot to contend with. There’s the pressures of school, including performance demands and social worries, and the added burden that social media can bring. Comparisons with who’s wearing what and who’s friends with whom can seem trivial to adults, but to children and teenagers, it’s consuming and a large part of their life.

University students have the added burden of moving to a new area, planning their own finances and dealing with the change that university offers.

All of these pressures can result in an increase in mental health challenges among young people and teenagers. These things can lead to anxiety, depression and, in some cases, suicide. Unfortunately, it’s a sad fact that suicide rates are increasing among children and teenagers. We’ve collated some data about suicide and mental health rates here in the UK, as well as suggestions for the access and support your school or education setting can provide.

Current suicide rates among young people

While it’s shocking to think that suicide can affect young people, the occurrences are actually increasing.

According to the briefing from the House of Commons Library, there has been an increase in mental health struggles every year since 2010. But perhaps most surprising are the stats and figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS). Their data shows a 29% increase in suicide among 10 to 14 year olds (a comparison of 2021 and 2022 data) and a 16% decrease among 15 to 19 year olds.

In 2022, there were 18 deaths by suicide among 10 to 14 year olds and 179 in 15 to 19 year olds. The figure was even larger for 20 to 24 year olds, at 364 instances.

There is further data available for university students. Student Minds, a student mental health charity here in the UK, conducted a survey in November 2022. They surveyed over 1,000 students to identify their current well-being, whether they had a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health condition and what they considered to be the cause of this.

More than 50% of the students surveyed said that they currently have a mental health condition but that it’s a self-reported condition and hasn’t officially been diagnosed. A third of students stated that since beginning university, their mental health had gotten worse.

For both students at university and pupils at primary and secondary school, the pressures to perform well and get good grades can contribute to poor mental health. Student Minds’ survey revealed that one of the most common causes of stress amongst university students was the pressure to do well in coursework and exams.

Social media and the great mental health awakening

With so much information readily available online and on social media, it may come as no surprise that many children and teens are self-diagnosing their mental health challenges. While this may have its benefits (such as acceptance and understanding of mental illness), it could have drawbacks too. There’s a potential for misdiagnosis or the absorption of misinformation from unreliable sources.

Professor Ann John, mental health and suicide prevention expert at Swansea University Medical School, believes that social media can lead to increased awareness in a positive way: “Raised awareness will, of course, lead to more people talking about their mental health and more people seeking help.

“When young people have undiagnosed or untreated mental health challenges, it affects their life trajectories. They face more adversity as they go through life. They have higher levels of exclusion and absence from school. So, increased awareness thanks to social media is a good thing. Mental health is a completely underfunded, under-recognised area for children and young people.”

The most common mental health challenges(by generation)

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions among 10 to 19 year olds, affecting up to 3.6% of those aged 10 to 14 and 4.6% of 15 to 19 year olds. Depression is the next common, affecting 1.1% of 10 to 14 year olds and 2.8% of 15 to 19 year olds. As the two display similar symptoms, it can be difficult to diagnose them.

The most common mental health troubles in young people in higher education are depression and anxiety.

Depression can lead to suicide, even in children and young people. It’s generally described as a complication of the condition, and other complications may include poorer work quality and difficulty retaining friends.

To reduce the risk of suicide and help students before they reach this decision, Professor Ann John explains:

“Usually, when people take their lives, there are a number of reasons and complex situations that come into play. But it is potentially preventable. To try and prevent it, it is important to identify what the precursors to suicide are, such as a history of self-harm, untreated mental health troubles like depression, and substance use. These are all big risk factors.

“It is critical that we give people the tools to manage how they're feeling and then provide access to the right help when they need it.”

Providing access and tools for those that need help

Unfortunately, the UK’s health service is extremely stretched, and this means mental health conditions, like anxiety and depression, can be missed. Professor Ann John agrees and explains: “When I trained as a GP, between 50 and 70% of people presenting with mental health symptoms [went undiagnosed].”

She goes on to say: “Capacity is a big concern. There was a report [...] that suggested there’s chronic underfunding in child and adolescent mental health services [...]. It means we've got to balance [the support] in schools, universities, early years education, and families.”

She says it’s imperative that people and children have access to the right level of care. She explains: “Access can be a toolbox, it can be access to counsellors in schools, it can be access to online help and support. it can be face-to-face with specialist mental health services.”

While it’s sad that the majority of support falls to schools instead of health services, around 75% of lifetime mental illnesses are first experienced before the age of 20. This shows just how imperative it is that intervention, treatment and coping mechanisms are implemented far before this age. Secondary schools and even primary schools may be able to offer help and support to reduce the risk of mental illnesses, particularly when they can lead to suicide.

Professor Ann John agrees, and states: “It’s great that we are focusing on the mental health of students, but we mustn’t forget those who don’t go on to complete higher education [...]. I think that [we should be] implementing this work earlier in primary and secondary schools, partly to catch mental health conditions early (most mental health troubles develop before the age of 14), but also because we are more likely to reach everyone and be more fair."

Data from the Student Minds survey promisingly shows that many young people would confide their feelings to others. Over 50% would tell their family, 47% their partner and 25% a tutor or mentor. Seven out of 10 people said they would know where to seek support. However, these aren’t the numbers we should focus on. Around 13% wouldn’t tell anyone, and it’s these young people that schools and health services should look out for. They often go under the radar, but suffering in silence may result in actions like self-harm and suicide.

We’ve rounded up the most notable facts and statistics and condensed them into the image below. It provides more information around mental illness, self-harm and eating disorders in children and young people.

Mental health fact sheet

In particular, data released by the NHS in 2023 shows that around 12% of children and teenagers aged 11 to 16 screened positive for a form of eating disorder, as well as 57% of young adults (aged 20 to 25). Data from the NHS also showed that in 2023, almost 6% of children aged 8 to 10 had considered inflicting harm on themselves.

Supporting the mental well-being of your students

It’s important that schools understand the impact a mental health condition can have on a child, but also how some conditions display themselves so they can be identified and managed.

In the first instance, schools should choose one or a few members of staff to act as a mental health lead. They will be trained so they’re as qualified as they can be to oversee young people with mental health conditions, and should be broadcast as the first port of call for students with concerns or worries.

Other methods can be implemented, too. Schools may find it beneficial to use a check-in system. For students the school is already concerned about, check-in appointments or reviews can be booked in periodically. They can be treated as an informal chat about the student’s general well-being and mental state. Other issues can also be addressed too, such as school pressures and personal troubles.

It may also be beneficial to introduce a system that allows for suitable communication between doctors and other health professionals and schools or teachers. Whenever a mental health condition is diagnosed by a doctor, it will be flagged with the school so they can provide the right level of support. In some instances, it may be the parent that flags the condition. For this to succeed, good communication between the student, parents, doctors and school is essential.

At Medical Tracker, we’re dedicated to the mental and physical health and well-being of young people, which is why our first aid and health tracking software is used by so many schools in the UK. We strive to make schools a safer place to be, and aim to lessen the mental health strain on pupils.

How can young people improve their state of mind?

While it’s imperative young people and students get the professional support they need, there are some other things they can implement into their daily routine to improve their well-being and general state of mind.

Good quality sleep is essential, so young people should aim to get as much quality sleep as they can. This may involve reducing screen time before bed, creating a positive and regular sleep routine, reading before bed to relax and keeping their room tidy to create an optimal sleep environment.

A healthy, balanced diet is important too. While many children will be getting nutritious meals at school (and hopefully at home), some university students may not be getting the right balance. Food is brain power, so they should aim to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.

Physical activity, particularly in the great outdoors, has also been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression and improve cognitive function and self-esteem. Encourage walking, cycling, running, swimming or a different activity entirely to help improve their mental health.

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