There is no shadow of a doubt that school is stressful. Lockdown was stressful. Homeschooling provided both parents and children with a host of new problems. However, a recent report from the University of Bristol revealed that the stress-level in high school aged students has gone down since lockdown began. When the world was plunged into the unknown students’ mental health improved. These findings are unexpected and raise the question of what is going wrong in schools that means lockdown was a relief for students.
Lead author Emily Widnall stated “While we saw anxiety levels rise for a few of our participants, it was a big surprise to discover quite the opposite was the case for many of them.” The study does show that COVID-19 is a big worry for students, with both boys and girls being equally concerned about family members and friends catching the virus. Data collected before the pandemic was compared to that collected during lockdown, showing that levels of anxiety and depression in students decreased.
Furthermore the wellbeing of students increased with both boys and girls feeling more connected with their schools and boys feeling more connected with their peers. However, for vulnerable students (those in the LGBTQ+ community or with disabilities) there was little change in levels of anxiety and depression. This is likely due to the fact that disabilities are still present for students in lockdown.
It creates a pressure to be perfect, to compare your progress to peers and school becomes the ideal breeding ground for anxiety.
These findings must lead to questions around just how stressful school is for students. A lot of anxiety in school comes from academic pressure and the constant reminder of GCSEs. From my own experience I was sitting mock exams (that fully replicated the structure of GCSEs) from year 8. When I was in year 11, the year 7s were also sitting these mock exams. We were constantly told that these exams would contribute to what set we would be in in the next year. Whilst I do completely understand the need for mock exams I don’t believe they should happen multiple times a year from year 7. It creates a pressure to be perfect, to compare your progress to peers and school becomes the ideal breeding ground for anxiety. By the time I sat my GCSEs I was in a separate room as just the thought of stepping into the exam hall caused panic attacks.
Another huge area of worry for both students and parents is school uniform. In recent years the price of school uniform has increased, this is mostly due to schools demanding everything (including P.E kits) to have a logo. My own school made the headlines for driving students to buy them new shoes and then sending parents the bill. I remember this day vividly and I was (as most new high school students are) terrified of getting into trouble. In the years after this event uniform rules became even stricter. Girls regularly had skirts measured in front of peers (even at lunch and break). I ended up wearing a skirt that didn’t fit me round the waist as I was one of the taller ones and my skirt needed to be just below my knee. Having the correct uniform does not mean that suddenly all students are concentrating all the time. In fact my uniform distracted me in lessons as I was constantly paranoid about something being wrong.
In lockdown these stressors disappeared. Uniform doesn’t matter when you’re learning from home, you won’t miss half the school day if you have the wrong shoes. You won’t be humiliated in front of peers if your skirt is deemed to be the wrong length. Students can just learn, free of restrictions. At my school you weren’t allowed a drink unless you asked and taking a sip of water in the corridor was a big no-no. Once again homeschool allowed students to quickly see to their needs (getting a drink or snack and going to the toilet) then get back to what’s important – learning.
Mental health can sometimes fall to the bottom of this list of priorities but lockdown has made schools hyper aware of the difficulties facing students.
Students also reported feeling more connected to their schools during lockdown. This unprecedented time has made us all check on family and friends more. Schools are no different. Mental health can sometimes fall to the bottom of this list of priorities but lockdown has made schools hyper aware of the difficulties facing students. In their determination to make sure no student feels isolated schools have demonstrated that they can provide support for mental health and this must continue after lockdown.
However, schools are not the only ones to blame for students suffering with depression and anxiety. The Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) has been hit with budget cut after budget cut. Funds for school nurses and public mental health services, has been reduced by £600 million from 2015/16 to 2019/20. Without the funding CAMHS can’t give young people the help and support they deserve. 75% of young young people are forced to wait so long for help that their condition gets worse or are unable to access any treatment at all. The sad fact is that CAMHS are struggling to cope with the increased demand. They need more funding and they need it sooner rather than later for the sake of all young people.
Lockdown had a huge impact on almost everyone’s mental health. We all had good days and bad ones. But even in the stress of lockdown student’s mental health got better. The findings of this report can and should be used to make much needed improvements to the school system. It’s time to prioritise learning. Not exams, uniform, rules about eating and going to the toilet. Schools have shown that they can give students the support they need, this needs to continue after lockdown. What has been learnt during lockdown should be used to create a better, happier time at school.
Words by Orla McAndrew
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