The wellbeing of Irish secondary school students decreases steadily from first year through to sixth, with girls suffering more of a decline than boys, according to a newly published study.
The findings conjure up an image of first-year students entering the secondary school system full of joie de vivre and optimism, only to emerge six years later burdened down by the worries of the world. And that is probably exactly how many of the 55,000-plus students currently in the throes of the Leaving Certificate feel.
Of course, school is not the only thing happening in the life of adolescents. However, as the Department of Education and Skills’s wellbeing policy (2018-2023) notes, they do spend a large proportion of their time in school during their formative years, therefore “schools play a key role in developing and enhancing young people’s wellbeing”.
Wellbeing is not simply an absence of "ill-being", says Dr Jolanta Burke, a chartered psychologist specialising in positive education, who led the study involving almost 3,000 secondary school students aged 12-19 in schools around the country. Yet up to recently wellbeing tended to be measured by weighing up the degree of negative elements such as depression, anxiety and self-harm.
“It is one way of looking at it, but it is not a way of capturing the wellbeing factors,” she says.
While the questionnaire used for the study included reference to negative emotions and loneliness, it focused mainly on assessing wellbeing criteria such as engagement, happiness, meaning, achievement and relationship.
These wellbeing “skills” are increasingly being recognised as offering protection against mental health problems, just as a healthy diet and exercise lower the risk of physical illness and speed recovery after an ailment.
"Just because somebody has depression does not mean they don't have the capacity to bounce back from it," says Burke of the University of East London, who co-authored with Stephen James Minton of Trinity College Dublin a paper on the study that has been published in the latest edition of Irish Educational Studies.
“I had depression when my father died – but it was quite a normal reaction to death of someone really close, and my resilience skills and wellbeing helped me to get out of it faster.”
It is also normal for students to experience anxiety, for example, just before their Leaving exams, but wellbeing skills can help them cope with this stress much better.
Burke does not believe that the decline in wellbeing tracked by her study is an inevitable part of growing up. However, the stress of school exams is undoubtedly a factor.
She says everything centres around the Leaving Cert, and when students enter secondary school they slowly become more and more focused on that one moment. “It keeps coming closer and closer.”
When she visited more than 50 schools over a two-year period, senior cycle students talked of being “petrified” about the looming Leaving, believing that their chances of getting into university, a good job and even being able to buy a house all depended on it.
“They were putting themselves under pressure, their parents were putting them under pressure, teachers were putting them under pressure. No fun, just work, work, work – a bad idea.”
That’s a message some parents need to hear. Burke recalls a recent visit to the home of a friend whose now teenage daughter she has known all her life.
“She always had fantastic after-school activities such as martial arts, drawing and dancing, doing all these fun things, and she was always excited afterwards. I was really shocked her after-school activities are now just additional classes – language classes and grinds.”
At home “all my friend was doing was screaming at her to ‘get off the phone and study’.”
Burke asked the girl when she had last been rollerblading because she used to love that, and she said not since last summer because she had not had time since.
Positive emotions, says Burke, are about creating moments in everyday life, not just over the weekend, that allows students to have fun, joy, a bit of carefree time. “This is something that needs to happen in order to protect themselves from depression, from anxiety. That doesn’t mean if they have it they won’t have depression, but it is a very important aspect of keeping their mental health in check.”
School work apart, it is still very hard to be a teenager, she says. “Hormones are running wild, and some teenagers don’t have the support to help them through it.” But those who have good support from parents or “one good adult”, and have a good balance in their life, are likely to develop better wellbeing skills.
“So when they get to that difficult time it does not hit them as hard,” she says.
"Adolescence is really unfortunately timed," says child and adolescent psychotherapist Colman Noctor, "because it is the point in your life when you are most scrutinised, coming at a time when you are most vulnerable." As a result, he says "wellbeing is an ambitious concept for anyone between the ages of 11 and 19".
When he asks young people what they think mental wellbeing is, they are likely to reply “happiness”. But if you consider happiness to be laughing, jubilant contentment, we probably spend less than 1 per cent of our lives that way. “If you expect that all the time you are going to spend 99 per cent of your life disappointed or feeling that you are missing out.”
In other words, our expectations of what wellbeing and happiness should be may make us more unhappy.
“We live in a very mentally unhealthy world from the point of view of the pace, the pressure, expectations, the comparative culture, the tyranny of choice – all that stuff is incredibly more intense and difficult than it ever was.
“Children are not weaker and lesser than they ever were,” says Noctor, of St Patrick’s mental health services in Dublin and author of Cop On.
“They are trying to manage a much more difficult landscape than we did, without the necessary space to develop the skills to be able to manage it. Think how many times you tell a child to hurry up in the day.”
Now that children are growing up in a far more anxious environment, they need extra skills to cope. “In the 1980s we had lots of time – we stood waiting for buses, or sat on a wall waiting for a lift – we had plenty of time to be mindful. Mindfulness has become popular now because our world is mindless.”
He worries that the “wellbeing” programmes being implemented in the junior cycle of secondary schools since 2017 could be tokenistic. He also wonders if we are over-complicating matters.
Why not a “boredom class”, he says, where “once a week there was 40 minutes of nothingness” – with no need for facilitators, videos or interactive white boards. “We just need to sit and take stock.”
While he believes the curriculum for social, personal and health education (SPHE) is a really useful notion, it still all depends on the willingness and the enthusiasm of the teacher to run it. Does it become a doss class or something that is meaningful?
“Anything that is universally rolled out and is at the mercy of the facilitator has the potential to be great or not so great, but it is an unfortunate indictment of where we are. We shouldn’t need to do this but we do, so let’s do it well.”
At St Wolstan's Community School in Celbridge, Co Kildare, deputy principal Anne Smyth believes a good wellbeing programme can alleviate demotivation, demoralisation and despondency.
“Life is tough for everybody; some kids deal with things well and others don’t. It’s a matter of trying to empower them to deal with the fallouts of life because things happen.”
The school set up a “wellbeing committee” to consider initiatives it might take. First it consisted of seven teachers who then invited two student representatives from each year, from first to fifth, to join them.
Proposals they have implemented during the past year include a dance in the PE hall on Mondays to improve physical activity; walking at lunchtime on Wednesdays; the display of inspirational quotes around the school, eg on the stair risers, toilet cubicle doors etc, to uplift all school personnel; and the setting up of a “gratitude wall” in the reception area.
Currently schools have to provide 300 hours of “wellbeing” to junior cycle students, and this is mainly timetabled through SPHE, civic, social and political education (CSPE) and physical education classes, says Smyth. By 2020 this is to be increased to 400 hours. One of the ways St Wolstan’s is going to do this is to have eight minutes of “tutor time” at the beginning of every day.
“It is all about building a relationship between the tutor and the student, so it is not just going to be registration and check notes,” says Smyth.
Parents sometimes don’t have time in the morning when they are rushing out, so the school community is very important, and this will be a chance to notice if a student is missing, or late, or showing signs of vulnerability.
Resilience building is essential, she says, and “the tutor is key in talking through coping mechanisms with students of difficult scenarios that may arise. The relation with one significant adult is important.”
Up to now tutors have not been able to move up through the school with their classes, as is done in some schools, but Smyth believes this is a good idea, and it is something they are looking at.
The most pressing issue in schools is the impact of social media on young people, says Smyth, and St Wolstan’s, an all-girls school, is no exception. The wellbeing programme tries to address the fallout through education and SPHE classes.
The school is considering the banning of mobile phones, and is consulting with parents, students and staff on the matter. But it’s very difficult because not only are phones such an integral part of young people’s lives, but the school is also quite progressive in its use of IT. While the school broadband filters out social media, phones using 3G and 4G can access it. “There’s issues with that. They are under stress because their lives are so public, they live everything so publicly. You’re trying to teach them to discern and discriminate between what’s appropriate to be publishing and not.”
In Burke’s study females reported lower levels of wellbeing across the board than males, and also higher levels of negative emotions and loneliness. She was surprised that engagement was lower in girls, as was a sense of achievement and physical health. Positive relationships was the only wellbeing factor that ranked equally for both genders. Some of these differences, Burke speculates, may be due in part to a high level of negative body image amongst adolescent females. And this can be exacerbated through more frequent use of social media.
The field work for the study was done just before the introduction of the junior cycle wellbeing programme, and Burke suggests it could be used as a benchmark in measuring the impact by repeating the research in a few years’ time.
She believes the Department of Education and Skills has not been directive enough in its guidelines on wellbeing for schools, leaving many unsure of what they should be doing. More structure has to be put in place, and programmes that are being used must be evidence-based, such as one being widely used in Australia.
Enhancing the wellbeing of students can potentially reduce many problems in school such as bullying.
“If we had people who are well psychologically,” says Burke, “they wouldn’t have a need to bully others, and you would also have people who are able to protect themselves from it. Also, bystanders are more likely to feel comfortable in standing up for others.”
She thinks depression could also be reduced because students would be better able to deal with challenges, and it could address some discipline problems too.
As for parents who think school wellbeing programmes are just depriving their children of vital class time in the pursuit of higher Leaving Cert points, at St Wolstan’s Smyth says “wellbeing is the mortar to the bricks of academic learning – and if you get that right the academic learning will be better.”
KNOW YOUR CHARACTER STRENGTHS
Secondary school students hit hardest by low levels of wellbeing are those who are under-using their character strengths.
This is the conclusion of the study Wellbeing in Post-Primary Schools in Ireland: the Assessment and Contribution of Character Strengths by Dr Jolanta Burke and Stephen James Minton, published in Irish Educational Studies.
However, it’s one finding that Burke says gives her a lot of hope because it indicates a clear way for potentially boosting students’ wellbeing. Working to your own character strengths can create a lot of positive emotions, she says, but many young people are unaware of what they are.
In the course of Trinity College research she was involved in some years ago, they asked Leaving Cert students to identify their character strengths.
“We were shocked because over 90 per cent of them didn’t pinpoint their top character strengths correctly,” she says. This meant they were unable to consciously draw on them when things got tough.
Schools in Australia, US and UK are looking at how better to equip students with self-knowledge about what type of strengths they have, she says, so they can use them through difficult times.
“I think we live in a society which is so focused on improvement, we forget what is good about us,” says Burke, who believes schools and parents have to make a greater effort to help students understand their strengths.
Pioneering US positive psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman led a team of social scientists in developing the VIA classification of 24 character strengths and virtues.
If, like this writer, you've never taken a questionnaire to explore your own, you might be interested to know that the non-profit VIA Institute on Character, based in Ohio, offers free online surveys of character strengths for both adults and youths aged 10-17 at viacharacter.org.