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HMC data shows growing mental heath issues in pupils

First data on mental health trends in independent schools shows pupils are kind to each other but hard on themselves

Posted by Stephanie Broad | October 15, 2015 | Health & wellbeing

The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference has, for the first time, recently published data on the way national teenage mental health concerns are affecting their schools, to help ensure their pupils receive the best possible emotional support. 

The survey shows that incidents of intolerance and bullying are down, but there are unprecedented levels of concern amongst heads over pupils’ disclosing online threats, depression, self-harm and eating disorders. 

Chris Jeffery, Chair of the HMC’s Wellbeing Working Group, said: “Young people in all types of school are experiencing pressures like never before. They worry about getting the right grades in public exams that appear ever more important, a place at their chosen university and a good career beyond that so they can pay of increasing levels of student debt – all whilst constantly trying to look their best on social media. 

“These pressures are daunting, both for pupils and the teachers who support them. But good schools put themselves at the forefront of trying to alleviate pressure rather than add to it, often fighting against the tide. As independent schools we can use that independence to make necessary changes quickly without waiting for national frameworks or political buy in. 

“However, educators need educating about how to promote good mental health, so we can understand better what is happening in the minds of our pupils in and out of lesson time. By being open and thoughtful about the problem we can ensure we find the best solutions and help our young people thrive. 

“Over the past five years HMC schools have hugely increased the emotional and medical support we offer our pupils, with 83% now having in-house counselling services. In addition many schools are doing excellent work to research and test what really works. We have responded quickly and our independence allows us to do that. But there is much more to do. 

“The emotional and mental wellbeing of our pupils is our number one concern and we fully support the Sunday Times Young Minds campaign in its efforts to ensure teachers are better trained and understand the early warning signs of mental health problems.”

Sixty-five leading independent schools were asked which problems they felt had increased and decreased in their schools over the last five years. Social media and technology was cited most frequently by Heads (43 times from 65 respondents) as the biggest cause of pressure on young people. 

Key findings

  • 94% of schools report misuse of social media as an issue as opposed to 45% five years ago, a 109% increase. It is of serious concern to 65% of schools
  • 82% of schools report cyber bullying as an issue as opposed to 39% five years ago, a 110% increase. It is of serious concern to 45% of schools
  • 88% of schools reported self-harm as a concerning issue, a 57% rise on the situation 5 years ago. 45% of schools felt it was a significant concern, up from 11%
  • 87% of schools report depression as a concern, as opposed to 47% five years ago, an 85% increase. 42% said it was a significant concern (12% previously)
  • 85% of schools report eating disorders as a concern, as opposed to 65% five years ago, a 33% increase. 30% said it was a significant concern (17% previously). 

Some issues were reported as causing schools and young people fewer problems that they were five years ago. These included illegal drug use, alcohol misuse, smoking, homophobic bullying and sexual health.

Over half  of schools said that pupils were kinder to each other; 48% that there was less bullying overall; 78% indicated that older pupils were  more likely now to volunteer to help younger ones and 82% that pupils were more tolerant of difference among their peers. 

Pupils were reported as generally better behaved and work harder (the latter possibly being seen as a cause of the mental and emotional health issues noted already). 72% of schools note improved behaviour; 63% an improvement in the staff/pupil relationship; and 60% greater prevalence of hard work. 

HMC schools have been tackling this problem seriously for some time as deep rooted and complex changes to the way young people live their lives has taken hold.  Over the past five years, those schools surveyed have significantly increased their pastoral provision in many ways, including in-house counsellors, PHSE provision and links with psychologists. 

Chris Jeffery said: “While pupils are generally seen to be treating each other better, it seems they are not treating - or don't know how to treat - themselves as well in the light of the pressures they experience. Hence the rise in mental and emotional health issues should not be a surprise. 

“This is of grave concern to those of us teaching and caring for them and we will be listening to both pupils and experts in helping us roll out best practice in our schools.” 

Malcolm Trobe, Deputy General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, welcomed the research and said:

“This is a serious area of concern for all schools. Cuts to local child and adolescent mental health services mean there is now less support available for young people. Schools have increasingly had to fill this gap, even though they do not have the resources to provide this extra support. We are very keen to work with HMC on this issue and we are pressing the Government to urgently increase mental health provision for young people.”

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