At 16, 17 and 18, we face a lot of big upheavals, from sitting important exams to leaving school and starting afresh at university or work – situations that can bring their own stresses and strains.
If you feel stressed or anxious about the changes in your life, this blog is for you. A member of the Success at School team tells the story of how education impacted their own mental health, and what they did to combat their problems.
During my childhood and early teens, I was confident and carefree. Academically, I performed quite well, but I had a tendency to be lazy. On parents' evening, my teachers would always say I’d do a lot better if I spent less time chatting and more time studying.
Things changed dramatically during my A-levels when I fell in love with the subjects I was studying and decided I wanted to pursue this newfound love of learning at a top university. Having set the bar very high for myself, I suddenly struggled to reach my own expectations, and this had a big impact on my mental health. I started feeling like I had something to prove to others as well as myself – and since I could never reach my own standards, I was setting myself up to fail. I became much more withdrawn, and started experiencing anxiety and depression.
The impact of university
Things didn’t improve when I went to Cambridge University. I experienced something a lot of good students go through when they end up at university: I was no longer top of the class, I was suddenly surrounded by people much more intelligent than myself.
Coming from a state school (like 62% of students at Cambridge, I should add), I felt for a long time that I was in a world I didn’t belong to. This was more a feeling of privilege than a sense of being an outsider, but it meant that at the back of my mind I still felt that I had something to prove. I had a brilliant time at university, but was plagued by worsening mental ill health throughout my time there.
My experience is not unique. A report by the University of York into the mental health of its own students highlights that many feel under pressure to succeed at everything.
Anecdotally too, a lot of students say that the many different outside pressure can lead to other mental health problems. This includes Courtney, who recently told Newsbeat that being around lots of new people at university caused her to question her self worth, leading to panic attacks and bouts of severe anxiety.
A worsening picture?
The truth is, the causes of mental ill health are as many as the people suffering from it. But university and the different pressures it brings – from the sudden change of lifestyle, to the expectation to perform academically and socially – can be a catalyst for many young people.
The evidence suggests things may be getting worse. According to official figures, student suicide numbers have been rising since 2007. 30% more deaths by suicide were reported in 2014 compared with 2013 among those in full-time education aged 18 or over.
All this comes in the wake of evidence that almost a fifth of people aged 16-24 suffer from high anxiety and 16% "medium" anxiety. This is only the tip of the iceberg – I could list numerous studies, reports and news stories from recent months.
The good news – you can change!
This isn’t meant to be a scare story. It’s good that mental health issues among young people are getting talked about more and more. There is a stigma attached to mental health problems which doesn’t apply to physical health. It’s very easy to be embarrassed or ashamed to admit that we suffer from depression and anxiety, and many of us try to mask how we really feel – to the point that others are often surprised to find out we’ve been suffering when we finally “come out”.
And yes, poor mental health is illness, but it’s one you can do something about in a way that’s not possible with many chronic conditions. For me, something called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) was the turning point.
One evening, my anxiety got so bad that I completely withdrew inside myself. I was like a mental paralysis – as if I couldn’t turn my thoughts into words or actions. The next day I referred myself to the university counselling service. I went through two courses of treatment.
The first counsellor I saw asked me to draw how I felt – it wasn’t for me and to be honest I thought it was a bit ridiculous. My second counsellor introduced me to CBT, which is all about breaking harmful thought patterns.
Taking back control
I’m sure every CBT patient has a different experience, but I would use sensations (sounds, smells, tastes, sights) to stop myself getting carried away by my thoughts. It’s a powerful technique because it helps you reshape habits of thought and in doing it, you realise that the mind is something you can control and you’re not destined to feel how you feel forever.
It’s not something I practise all the time, but I’ve come back to it in other forms – such as mindfulness – when things have got tough. I’m not cured of my depression and anxiety, but I know that with a bit of effort and self-discipline I have an effective coping strategy to draw on when I need it.
In my career, I’ve had to work around my mental health problems, but it hasn’t stopped me succeeding – I spent three happy years working for a children’s charity and today I’m working for Success at School during a very exciting phase of its development.
Prepare to protect
The support I received at university was completely free, even though it was provided by highly trained counsellors who really cared about helping their patients get better. Some universities have come under criticism for not offering enough support, an accusation which may or may not be well founded. But there are lots of ways you can protect yourself against the worst effects of poor mental health – and it’s not just about counselling or taking anti depressants.
If you’re off to university, I urge you to familiarise yourself with the full range of options, even if you’ve never suffered from mental health problems in your life. Many of us face turbulent times in our lives – starting a new job, the end of a relationship, losing a friend or loved one. Any of these can be a trigger for mental upset, and sometimes there is no obvious trigger at all. Knowing how you can protect yourself will put you in a much stronger position during times of need.
If you're experiencing stress at school and need help, take a look at our guide to dealing with school- and work-related stress, which includes advice on how to reduce the causes of stress as well as tackle the effects.