As someone who works with and researches alongside children and young people, I am always interested in the issues which concern them most. Being a teenager in 2018 is not easy and it can be difficult for others to understand exactly what it’s like, as I have written about elsewhere. One thing is for sure, as a society we do seem to be accepting that the risk of mental ill-health amongst young people is continuing to grow.
What doesn’t seem to be as widely accepted is the cause of youth mental ill-health. Of course, there isn’t just one cause, one reason, one excuse. However, when we become aware of anything which is directly resulting in the negative mental health of our young people, we have a responsibility as academics, parents and fellow human beings to highlight it.
Having worked with young people for a long time, I have been struck by the rising pressures put upon young people, particularly by their schools.
Yes, schools are where young people spend a lot of their time. Yes, young people probably see some of their teachers for much longer than they see their parents. Yes, teachers, technicians and other support staff play a vital role in the lives of our young people – there are some very caring, nurturing and genuinely dedicated groups of individuals out there. However, as someone who specialises in the rights of children and young people, particularly adolescents, there is a distinct lack of framework within education, and elsewhere, for recognising that as young people grow they should be given more autonomy to make decisions about their lives. Instead, some Scottish schools are restricting autonomy and this is adversely impacting upon the mental health of our young people.
There are many different examples of this restriction of autonomy but I am going to mention just two: school service and ‘you must respect your teacher …’ – both in relation to final year school students (16 and 17 year olds).
Although many schools have had school service as an option for a while, this year’s final year students are feeling the pressure more than any previous year. Students who would have had ‘free periods’ AKA ‘study periods’ are being told they now need to choose an area of the school to help out in to ‘give something back’.
For some students that means working in the school library, reading to younger students, helping teachers in classes with admin or other tasks. Crucially, some students have been told that their role is needed because of cuts to support staff, something that UNISON Scotland is currently campaigning about.
While helping others is a wonderful thing that does provide additional, practical experience to put on that personal statement – is it really worth it when it risks the mental health of our young people?
Having upset and angry young people because they have far fewer study periods at school, are having to hold down a job as well as trying to maintain a decent level of grades as they manoeuvre their way through adolescence while also applying for apprenticeships, college, jobs and/or university highlights the lack understanding of what it means to be a final year school student in 2018.
When these young people are contacting me upset and feeling unable to cope, feeling distanced from their peers, their studies and generally knackered, we need to start questioning the reasoning behind restricting what young people use their ‘free periods’ for. Surely they should be permitted to choose what to do in those free periods, instead of being made to go and do something for the school for 4-6 periods a week, especially if it is the difference between positive and negative mental health?!
‘You must respect your teacher …’
Some schools really do emphasise the ‘us’ and ‘them’ environment when they have assemblies at the start of term to tell final year students that they must respect their teachers. The eye rolling of teens who retort ‘why don’t they have to show us any respect?’ really does underpin the issue many have with this request.
If you speak to teachers, some will say that young people have no respect any more. If you speak to the final year students – those about to enter places of full-time employment, further education and training – they say that they’ve never been shown any respect by teachers. This isn’t a new debate nor is it confined to schools, but it is an issue that needs to be addressed if we are to get to the bottom of the mental health epidemic – positive relationships with teachers is an important issue: from the start of education, until the end of education. Schools should leave a lasting positive impression in the lives of their young people, and at present – in Scotland – this is being restricted due to the failure to treat young people as equals. We all want respect – we are only human. If we want well rounded, integrated members of the community and not isolated young people who feel detached from society we need to start listening – now!
What stage do we need to get to for heads of education to start listening? Young people spend most of their time in school, it is a fact of life and respecting the autonomy of young people is vital if we are to ensure this time is as productive as it can be.
While many are happy to moan about the negative stereotypes of our young people and say that it is just what ‘kids are like these days’, thankfully some of us think a bit differently … it is time for discussion, debate and dialogue where schools, young people and education chiefs admit that the current school ethos is not having the positive lasting effect it should be.
As Maya Angelou said: ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel’. WE need to think about how we are making our young people feel because at the minute we are making our young people unwell, and that is not ok!