Extreme pressure to achieve at school and be liked online are the biggest threats to schoolchildren’s mental health, research has found.
The key findings are from a large-scale study commissioned by two executive departments.
It also found increasing levels of anxiety and self-harm, even among younger children.
One interviewee said they worked with an eight-year-old who was discovered looking at websites about self-harm.
The research also said schools had to fund most of the support for pupils with mental health issues from their own budgets.
‘Certain level of pressure’
The Department of Education (DE) and Department of Health (DoH) – through the Public Health Agency (PHA) – commissioned the research into pupils’ emotional wellbeing.
It was carried out by the National Children’s Bureau and delivered to the departments in May 2019 but has just been made public.
Its wide-ranging findings were based on detailed responses from 283 schools, 142 of which were subjected to in-depth analysis.
The report said resilience, self-esteem, motivation and self-awareness were key to developing emotional wellbeing in children and young people.
However they found increasing levels of concern in schools about the mental health of pupils, including “low levels of self-esteem and increasing incidences of self harm”.
“Whilst a certain level of pressure at exam time is both normal and helpful, many children are experiencing extreme pressure to achieve academically,” the report said.
“This extreme pressure and the challenges posed by the online world are the two biggest influences impacting negatively on children’s emotional wellbeing.
“The extreme pressure to achieve academically is coming from schools, parents and children and young people themselves, and is linked to increasing competition for university places and employment, as well as the current system of ranking schools solely based on academic performance.”
‘Hard to live up to’
The report contained comments from some pupils and teachers.
“We had one pupil who put so much pressure on himself to achieve 10 A* grades at GCSE that one A grade… was a massive failure and left him in significant distress,” one teacher said.
The research also suggested the transfer test caused stress in some young children, starting from primary five onwards.
A number of participants also said the way celebrity culture was portrayed, particularly on social media, made children feel pressure to live up to unrealistic expectations.
“Celebrities influence how we look and be and act, and it can be hard to live up to,” one pupil said.
The research said while the online world had positive aspects for children and young people, it also created many problems.
“The anonymous nature of the online world has blurred the lines between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour,” it said.
“Many were concerned that sexting and sharing of inappropriate images has become commonplace, with young people not comprehending the potential impact this may have on their own and others wellbeing, and leaving them vulnerable to exploitation or online abuse.”
‘Swiping instead of turning’
Many participants in the research also said parent-child attachments were getting weaker due to things such as parents and children spending time on their mobile phones rather than talking to each other or a “cotton wool culture” of over-protective parents.
“We see children unable to turn the pages of a book, they are swiping instead,” one teacher said.
“Parents aren’t reading to their children any more and that is one of the important ways that children pick up communication skills.”
More positively, the research found the vast majority of schools had support in place to help and develop emotional wellbeing among their pupils.
However, that provision was mostly being funded from the school’s own budget with only about a third of the support funded externally.
For instance, while a counselling service for post-primary schools is paid for through the Education Authority, primary schools have to arrange and pay for counselling themselves.
“There is a consensus across the research that increased incidence of stress and anxiety is the primary concern facing children and young people, and that this is now appearing in much younger children and with higher severity,” the report concluded.