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Did Exam season get you and your family down? Did it trigger any unwelcome anxiety? We have just emerged from the summer 2017 GCSE and exam season.  Many children and young adults may still be experiencing the emotional and physical impact of anxiety relating to exam stress. Unfortunately, here at Ellern Mede we frequently witness the correlation between eating disorders symptoms and the personal motivation linked to aiming for excellent exam results. However, not all stress is necessarily bad.

On the 6th of July, The Guardian published an article on research by Frédéric Brière et al, of the University of Montreal, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in July 2017 entitled Depressive and anxious symptoms and the risk of secondary school non-completion. Starting in 2002, the researchers tracked 4,962 secondary school students in Quebec from the age of 12 to the end of secondary school, checking them annually.

Among the findings are that:

  • depressive symptoms are more likely among high-achieving students
  • academic success is linked to moderate anxiety
  • students reporting levels of anxiety either higher or lower than the optimum ‘moderate’ level were more likely to leave their schooling without qualifications
  • exam-linked and achievement-linked depression and anxiety were more prevalent among girls than boys
  • bullying is a factor linked to anxiety in many pupils of secondary school age in this research

Quoted in The Guardian article cited here, Mr Brière added: “A troubling proportion (6-22%) of adolescents do not complete secondary school in the UK and North America. Non completion perpetuates social inequality. These adolescents are at high risk of experiencing a wide range of psychosocial, physical and mental health difficulties as adults.

So it appears that striking the right balance between high achieving approach in studies and stable mental health is not always simple.

Ellern Mede Clinical Psychologist, Dr Amy Harrison, said: “The findings resonate with work in health psychology on eustress which is a ‘good’ amount of stress that enhances performance. Too much and you experience distress. This seems to reflect the experience of the people in the Montreal study.

“Ellern Mede School supports vulnerable young people to maintain high educational levels while managing their stress levels effectively. Knowing when the pressure is becoming too much is a really important life skill. Patients participating in therapy at Ellern Mede have the opportunity to learn stress management strategies such as taking breaks, mindfulness skills and talking to others about how they feel to enhance their coping skills.”

Adel Shirbini, Headmaster of Ellern Mede School gives his view on the current status quo for young people in the British education system and the importance of their having support with education during periods of anxiety.

“Having worked in mainstream and independent education for more than 25 years I have witnessed the unintended outcomes of changes made, supposedly to improve results.

I believe there is over-assessment and too much focus on student results. Instead of a nurturing and developmental environment, education today focuses on the need for students to compete with one another for results. This can have a devastating effect on the mental health of young people.

“Combine this with social media which has given a platform for round-the-clock bullying, information overload, competition in a global job market, reducing social services because of budget cuts and childhood itself is in peril. Adolescence is in itself a time of vulnerability. Where is the stable support needed for robust personal development? But among the wider young population, there are those with a biological or neurological propensity to anxiety. There is no doubt they may find it hard to cope with adolescence, education, and a rapidly changing world.

“For this most vulnerable cohort of young people, early intervention with support for their emotional and education needs is vital. Early intervention can avert the deeper mental illnesses or eating disorders from really taking hold. At Ellern Mede we recognise the importance of a fully integrated service that draws together clinical and educational professionals with the objective of giving young people experiencing an eating disorder to have the resilience to survive, strive and thrive.”