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‘There is definitely more anxiety in teenage girls’: Meeting the mental health challenge in school

Schools are experimenting with ways to ease the stress students are facing – not only from the pandemic, but from life itself

The shadow of the pandemic looms large when chatting to four 16 year old students at a north Dublin school about managing their mental health.

Each of the four girls speak about how over those two crucial years of their teenage lives they became less sociable and more isolated from their peers, leaving them struggling not only to catch up on academic work but to mature socially once Covid-19 restrictions eased.

“We hadn’t fully adapted to being in secondary school when the pandemic hit and we became isolated from family and friends and missed out on school life. And when we got back, we had to wear masks all the time and stay in the same classroom every day,” says Deborah.

“During Covid, lots of young people developed mental health problems. Many people slipped out of routines so it was more difficult to fit in, make friends and stay on top of academic work,” says Cathy. “There is definitely more anxiety in teenage girls now,” adds Beth.


The girls from St Mary’s Holy Faith School in Killester are now in fifth year. They were the first group to sit the new Junior Cycle exams following two years of no Junior Cert exams. “I still feel quite a lot of pressure because I feel like I missed out on so much,” says Deborah.

“We are still learning to get over it but having the opportunity to speak to the juniors about mental health has helped,” says Audrey.

The four girls (who requested that their names be changed for this article) took part in the One Good School programme run by the mental health charity, Jigsaw.

The programme offers webinars and training for staff and students on how to promote good mental health and a culture of openness for anyone suffering from anxiety, depression or other mental health issues. Over 200 schools have participated in the programme since it was launched in 2019.

Carmel Halligan, youth mental health promotions manager for schools at Jigsaw, explains that the One Good School model is based around early intervention and prevention.

“It’s about signposting, recognising when students are in distress and finding how the school can best support them,” says Halligan.

Speaking to the students themselves about their strategies is central to the approach, as is mental health literacy for students and staff. “The transition year students are trained to deliver sessions on mental health and how to reach out if someone needs help,” she explains.

Halligan believes that mental health and wellbeing isn’t something just dealt with in SPHE (the social, personal and health education programmes) class. “It’s everyone’s business. It’s a shared responsibility. It’s about a culture of care and compassion and that anyone from the caretaker or gardener to P.E teacher or another student can be that ‘one good adult,’” she explains. The One Good Adult concept arose from research at University College Dublin. Studies found that young people who have one person they can turn to for support, have better overall mental health.

Another key element of the programme is self care (proactive rather than reactive like stress management) for teachers following the premise that teachers can’t be expected to look after others if they don’t look after their own mental health.

“Schools are complex places and we are seeing an increase in the mental health needs for staff as well – particularly younger staff. The staff needs mental health awareness and literacy and self care,” says Halligan. Parents are also invited to do self-care workshops.

Mairead Burke, who co-ordinates programmes including Jigsaw’s One Good School at St Mary’s Holy Faith School, says it is crucial for staff to socialise with other teachers throughout the day.

“The staffroom space is very important. I know that in some schools, teachers stay in their classrooms but that’s not a good idea. Teachers need to be able to talk to other teachers at break times and lunchtime about the pressures of the classroom and other things,” says Burke.

She says the staff participation in Jigsaw’s One Good School programme at the Killester school has helped teachers with their self-care.

“The relationship between teachers and students is very different now. What happens in the classroom is an agreed process. It’s no longer about teachers walking in and calling the shots from the top of the room,” says Burke.

The One Good School programme includes self-directed courses for teachers to reflect on their teaching styles and opportunities to meet teachers from other schools.

Inevitably, social media and use of smartphones during school time is a hot topic. At St Mary’s Holy Faith School, phones must be switched off and out of sight throughout the day, although they are not taken from the students.

“From this year, we have a policy that if students need to contact their parents, they can come straight to the office to call them and, likewise, parents can access students through the office,” explains Burke.

She says that not having phones during break time has made students more sociable. “They were using their phones rather than speaking to each other which stopped social interaction at break time,” she says.

The four fifth-year students have mixed views on the phone-ban and on social media use in general. Cathy says that while there is a lot of negative stuff online, you can also find comfort there.

“You can hear another person’s point of view on a problem or someone might explain the same situation you are in on a podcast,” she says. “It’s definitely not good for your sleep and you can spend all evening on it. Learning to put your phone away is all about self-control and a having a good mindset.”

That said, they all agreed that they spend two to three hours a day on social media.

Speaking about how they look after their own mental health, the teenagers say going for walks, listening to music, reading and cleaning the house are some of the ways they de-stress. “I love to clean. It’s a fun way to take my mind off things. I listen to podcasts while I’m doing it. Being in a clean environment is good for your mind,” says Cathy.

Care and compassion: five tips on minding the mental health of staff and students

1. Agree on smartphones use in school: Some schools opt for no-phone Fridays, while others have an outright ban on use of smartphones during school time (including break times). Students need to know that they can contact their parents if necessary through the school office if phones are banned during school time. Many schools report increased sociability when smartphones aren’t used during school time.

2) Give teachers access to mental health support: The old maxim about putting on your own oxygen mask first before you put on someone else’s applies here; showing students how you look after your own mental health (even admitting when you are having a difficult day yourself) is an effective way to encourage young people to look after their own mental health

3) Encourage a culture of care and compassion: The mental health and wellbeing of students is everyone’s responsibility and all staff and students should be able to gently ask if someone isn’t feeling okay without feeling like they are intruding.

4) Offer transition year students training: It means they can give talks to other students on ways to look after their mental health and who to contact if they need help.

5) Encourage students and staff to speak openly about their mental health: The mental health charity, Jigsaw endorses the New Economic Foundation’s five things you can do daily for your mental health. They are: connect with others, be active, take notice of your current surroundings and reconnect with your body, keep learning and do something for somebody else. Getting a good night’s sleep and eating nutritious food are two more essentials for physical and mental health.