The Head, Bart Wielenga

Not All Stress is Bad Stress (Part 1)

If you read the mainstream press on a regular basis or are a frequent user of social media then you will undoubtedly come across many articles confirming that young people are more at risk of mental health issues than ever before. One article referred to mental health in teenagers as a ‘silent catastrophe’ and another referred to it as having reached epidemic proportions.

At Blundell’s we take our pastoral care and support of pupils very seriously. I’d like to think we take it more seriously than anything else we do. In our staff meetings and at our beginning of term launch we discussed at length the importance of getting our pastoral response to pupil’s right because we believe strongly that academic performance will be enhanced by emotional and mental well-being. Working with our pupils on this topic is very much at the forefront of all that we are about.

The main sources of the stress and anxiety are said to be caused by social media and the rise of mobile technology. The exam regime in Britain is also held to blame along with the pressure on young people to get the grades to get into university. Add to that the likelihood that graduates will often begin their working lives with over £40,000 worth of debt along with the diminishing prospect of getting onto the housing ladder as well as the unsettling effects of Brexit, and you can see why children preparing to leave education may well feel a little bit depressed and anxious.

To ensure our children have the best possible support we have tripled the hours that our school councillor is available over the last five years. This increased presence has had a positive impact particularly with our boys as we now feel we have cracked open the notorious code of silence within the male members of our student body. The request for support is now split 50/50 between boys and girls, vs 90/10 (in favour of girls) seeking support five years ago. Young people are without a doubt better informed of mental health issues and the help available to them than any generation before them. They are acutely aware of stress and anxiety because they are told about it often and the stigma associated with asking for help is not an issue for this generation, which is fantastic to see.

An excellent New York Times article (which I posted it on my Twitter feed) caught my attention because rather than the doom and gloom of the inevitable slide into depression and catastrophe the article focused on ‘How to Help Teenagers Embrace Stress’. It is a refreshing reminder that stress is of itself a necessary element in development. Stress is essential in helping pupils to understand their limits and then to expand them. It is called growth.

All athletes understand that in order to get physically stronger or fitter they have to put their bodies through a degree of strain and stress. Training within our capacity will not result in progress. It is only by putting our bodies under strain that they will grow and develop. The key of course is that we do it appropriately and in a manageable and healthy manner. What is unavoidable is that putting our bodies through a tough gym session or a hard work out will at times be painful and it may even cause considerable discomfort. We encourage our athletes to overcome that pain and to push on through it when, for example they are running the Russell or when they enter into the last few minutes of a tight hockey or rugby match. Pupils – and parents – generally understand the concept of no pain, no gain and pupils feel proud of their achievements and their efforts when they know that they have pushed themselves.

“But the conventional wisdom is that stress does harm and so, accordingly, we should aim to reduce, prevent or avoid it. Not surprisingly, this negative slant on stress can shape parenting and also leave teenagers feeling stressed about being stressed.

To reframe how we think about a phenomenon that has been roundly, and wrongly, pathologized, we should appreciate that healthy stress is inevitable when we operate at the edge of our abilities. Stretching beyond familiar limits doesn’t always feel good, but growing and learning — the keys to school and much of life — can’t happen any other way.” (Lisa Damour, New York Times, 19 September 2018)

Over the next few weeks I will expand on some of these thoughts. This is an important discussion to be having. How much stress is good stress? What can we do to help our pupils embrace the good kind of stress? As staff and as parents we need to hold our nerve and not jump in too quickly to prevent or avoid stress for our children but knowing when to intervene and when to stand back is not always easy and will differ from one child to another. What is important is that we keep talking to each other: parents to children, children to teachers and parents to teachers. Together we will support our children as best we can to ensure that when they leave our collective care they will be self-aware and robust young adults who can cope with stress and anxiety in a healthy way.