The Blog

Jeremy Clarkson May Be Right About A Levels, But Without The Benefit Of Hindsight, Academic Pressure Can Have A Serious Impact On Young People's Mental Health

If we know which factors can make a young person vulnerable and some of the warning signs, then teachers, parents and services can do more to support them before they reach crisis point

There are few events in life which stay in your head as clearly as the day your A Level results arrive. Twenty years on I still recall the agonies I put my own parents through when I embarked on a convoluted process between the results landing on my doormat to opening the letter, in order to steel myself to the consequences.

So Jeremy Clarkson may be right (he tweeted that he got a C and two Us in his A Levels and is currently on a superyacht in the Med). With the benefit of hindsight, many young people, disappointed this week, will go on to realise that A Levels, while incredibly important, are not the be all and end all.

Yet the pressure and stress of exam time can have a very real impact on young people's mental health, often exacerbating feelings of depression and anxiety. Many young people feel like their entire future is at stake and an unexpected result can have a serious effect on their confidence and self esteem.

Last week I was speaking to one of our young activists and she poignantly explained to me how a period of mental illness around her exams meant she got grades below what she felt she was capable of, which made her feel like a failure and, in turn, deepened her illness.

This experience is borne out by research. A recent report by The University of Manchester's National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide by People with Mental Illness (NCISH) looked at the factors that played a role in young people who took their own lives. The researchers found that 29% were facing exams or exam results when they died. It's impossible, and irresponsible, to attribute suicide to one simple cause, not least when other factors included bullying and physical health conditions such as acne and asthma, but this does show how great a burden young people feel at this time. Sure, it's easy to be sanguine about it later in life but a decent set of exam results are an anchor in a storm.

If we know which factors can make a young person vulnerable and some of the warning signs, then teachers, parents and services can do more to support them before they reach crisis point.

Of course that support then has to be available, and too often in this country it isn't. Young people should be able to access the right treatment and support for them long before they reach crisis point, but this just isn't the case for many. The Centre for Mental Health's Missed Opportunities report found that children and young people with mental health difficulties go an average of ten years between first becoming unwell and first getting any help - often because more deep-rooted mental health problems are dismissed as something a teenager will "just grow out of". This is a genuine tragedy since half of those who go on to have a lifetime of mental health issues first experience symptoms by the age of fourteen.

Of course we must be careful not to go the other way and medicalise every passing act of whimsy or seemingly peculiar behaviour of a young person. Let's face it, we probably all look back at those years and cringe at something we wore, or said, or thought or did. Teenage years can be as exhilarating and meaningful as almost any other period in life but it's also a time of tremendous change, some of which, frankly, even as mature adults we would struggle to cope with.

So as adults we have an important job to do in trying to walk in the shoes of teenagers, remembering what it felt like to be buffeted around and to make sure that we are going that extra mile every day to relate to the enormous pressures young people feel.

That's a test we should all try to pass.