With the recent arrival of National Stress Awareness Day, I wrote a little about stress in teaching, and today I’d like to have a look at the same topic from a student perspective.  But first I’m going to touch on two of the I think important, but certainly sensitive and lesser heard arguments that surround the issue of stress and, by extension, mental health. 

With mental health an increasingly prevalent issue in schools across the nation, there has been an understandable drive to increase awareness and cater to such needs.  Assemblies, counselling, workshops, PSHE, posters, world mental health day, national stress awareness day, self-injury awareness day, world bipolar day, and world suicide prevention day are some of the strategies and events applied to what some refer to as a national crisis. 


Right then (he says as he dons the bullet-proof vest), to my first point.  I have heard it argued that in drawing constant attention to mental health, you run the risk of exacerbating or even amplifying it.  I have had first hand experience of this idea; the uncomfortable conviction that the young person before you, in having heard so often about the symptoms and dangers of stress, is now convinced that their own mental health is in peril; a sense that awareness of mental health has given fuel to the fire, rather than the balm to calm it.

I remember the furore a few years ago with the release of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, which explored the suicide of a teenage girl.  Putting aside – trying to put aside… – the cynicism that might justifiably surround a commercial effort designed to maximize profit through a teenage audience whilst using suicide as a vehicle… putting aside that, many argued that the series glamourised the portrayal of suffering.  That it offered, through a path that ends in suicide, a spotlight that many lonely or isolated young people crave, and with it the idea that such a path might be sought in order to summon that spotlight.

A disclaimer for those who rail against the above on the grounds that such an argument dismisses or belittles real suffering.  No one – or at least no one I know – is for a moment suggesting that awareness of stress and mental health is inherently damaging.  What is being tentatively asked by civil and decent minds who think seriously about the welfare of all the young people in their care, is whether or not it is possible, in certain cases, that concentrating a young person’s mind on their own inner life can exacerbate and amplify issues which, if they were encouraged to look beyond themselves, might not be so crippling.  I think this is a sensitive but serious question, and it brings me to the second point.

Stressed about Stress

Google dictionary gives me a definition of stress that seems fair: “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.”  Yet none of us can escape the fact that “adverse or demanding circumstances” are a huge part of life, and that “mental or emotional strain” will always accompany them.  In other words, stress is a normal.

Obviously, once beyond a certain point, it can become crippling; that is not in dispute here.  But to stigmatize stress in its entirety may equally detract from the real and necessary encounters with stressful situations that all must endure if they are to build the resilience that they will certainly need in order to successfully navigate this life.  The ability to confront and triumph over “adverse or demanding circumstances” is hugely important for anyone who wishes to lead, to seize an opportunity, or to face down the many difficulties that may inhibit or crush the spirit.

In summary then, I have looked very (!) briefly at two arguments that, if not approached calmly, can look like the insensitive ramblings of the stereotypical reactionary who dismisses the suffering of the young as the pathetic and self-obsessed whinging of a ten-a-penny weakling with “issues”.  You don’t know you’re born!  But if we are to take stress or any other mental health issue seriously, then a nuanced and varied debate must be sought.  That means, at the same time as rightly celebrating the increased awareness that surrounds mental health, considering the possible dangers that may accompany it.

Whatever the nature of the debate, statistics provided by Youngminds.org.uk cannot but disturb:

  • 1 in 8 children have a diagnosable mental health disorder – that’s roughly 3 children in every classroom
  • 1 in 6 young people aged 16-24 has symptoms of a common mental disorder such as depression or an anxiety disorder

I’m always amazed by those who express a desire to be young again.  I can’t imagine anything worse, and being young now looks much worse to me than my own comparatively care-free youth in the brash, confident, colour-splashed 90s.  We’ve all heard the 13 reasons why, and social media plays king of the castle.  Whatever happened during my school day, I could go home afterwards and that was largely the end of it.  Any further communication meant picking up the telephone in the kitchen, or getting on the bike.  Nowadays, kids are bullied in silence at 2am beneath their own duvet.

Stress beyond a certain point is debilitating.  Avoidance of stress altogether can also be debilitating.  Limiting the many-sided debate that ought to surround how we approach the issue of stress is certainly debilitating.  It’s the latter that I find concerning, and I hope that when it comes to resisting the seemingly all-encompassing culture wars that touch on and often hijack any attempt at nuanced discussion, teachers will be at the forefront, holding the line, exemplifying the thoughtful and civilised nature that we hope our students will aspire to.

Part of ‘The Good Fight’ by Tom Brooker for Consortium Education.

Find out more about Tom here.