How to think beyond and survive the exam season

Submitted by Matthew on 3 May, 2017 - 8:29 Author: Daisy Thomas

A report on 2 May from the Health and Education Committee of MPs found that government cuts are pushing many schools to scrap or limit mental health help in schools. Daisy Thomas explains why that help is important.


There has been more recognition of the importance of mental health in the media lately. From the Facebook Live video of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, to the hugely successful 2017 London Marathon, the aim — to encourage more people to have conversations about mental health, as well as changing the way that these conversations can be had — is good.

Mental health is a spectrum, just like physical health. Some people may be at one end of the spectrum which is characterised by wellbeing and coping. At the other end of the spectrum people have trouble functioning in everyday life and have reduced coping and emotional resources. This may be whensymptoms of depression and anxiety begin to reveal themselves.

The UK Mental Health Foundation defines depression as “a common mental disorder that causes people to experience depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, low energy, and poor concentration”1.

Anxiety is the second most common mental health condition. Anxiety is described as “a type of fear usually associated with the thought of a threat or something going wrong in the future, but can also arise from something happening right now.”1 Adolescents and young adults are particularly vulnerable to symptoms of depression and anxiety. It is estimated that at least 50% of mental health issues manifest by mid-teens and 75% by mid-twenties.1

Young Minds (the leading charity for youth mental health) is calling for government action, and pointing to how the education system exaccerbates problems for young people. They say: “The education system is fundamentally unbalanced, with an over-emphasis on exams and too little focus on student wellbeing. It is time to ensure that the wellbeing of students is as important as academic achievement in schools.”2

Neglecting student wellbeing and over-emphasis on exam achievement can lead to a range of issues such as: poor concentration, memory issues, poor self-confidence, increased juvenile delinquency, reduced academic performance, poorer health, increased social difficulties or isolation, and reduced employment and further education opportunities.2, 3 So, what can be done?

The good news is that schools can help promote student wellbeing, mental wellness, and resilience. The first step is having a conversation about it and show that it’s okay to talk about mental health. That can be done in a school assembly or in class. In addition, increasing the visibility of student support (e.g. school counsellors, chaplains, etc.) can help promote student engagement. Schools can also help students through implementing mindfulness in the classroom.

An evaluation of the Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP) concluded that mindfulness interventions led to improvements in young peoples’ mental, social, emotional, and physical health and wellbeing.
The intervention reduced stress, anxiety, reactivity, and disruptive behaviour. It also led to increases in sleep, self-esteem, calm, and relaxation.4

Some mindfulness techniques to incorporate at the beginning and/or end of classes, at home, as well as before exams can include:

Deep breathing exercises

Close eyes or focus softly on a neutral place

Inhale for 5 counts

Hold for 5 counts

Exhale for 5 counts

Bring back the mind to the breath if it wanders

Body scan

Close eyes or focus softly on a neutral place

Breathe deeply

Start to identify how different parts of the body feel

Work your way from your toes to your head

Bring your attention gently back if it wanders

Don’t get caught up in trying to change anything

Progressive muscle relaxation

Close eyes or focus softly on a neutral place

Breathe deeply

Start to curl or clench the toes, holding for a breath or two, and then releasing.

Do this with the remaining muscle groups of your body, working your way up progressively

There are a range of wonderful mindfulness resources out there for adults and young people, such as Calm, Headspace, Smiling Mind. Just remember, it doesn’t take much to take a moment to really ask someone, one-on-one, how they have been going. We can start to change the way that mental health is approached, especially with youth in schools, who can often be suffering the most.

Notes

1. Mental Health Foundation, (2016). ‘Fundamental Facts About Mental Health 2016’.
2 Young Minds, (2017). 'Wise Up: Prioritising Wellbeing in Schools’.
3. Owens, M., Stevenson, J., Hadwin, J.A., & Norgate, R, (2012). ‘Anxiety and depression in academic performance: An exploration of the mediating factors of worry and working memory’. School Psychology International, 33(4), 433-449.
4. Weare, K, (2012). ‘Evidence for the Impact of Mindfulness on Children and Young People. Exeter: Mindfulness in Schools Project’.
5. Call, D., Miron, L., & Orcutt, H, (2014). ‘Effectiveness of Brief Mindfulness Techniques in Reducing Symptoms of Anxiety and Stress’. Mindfulness, 5(6), 658–668.