What's driving the increase in anxiety among pupils?
Statistics show a worryingly high increase in young people with anxiety. We examine three possible factors behind the alarming trend.
According to Action for Children, one in six children aged between five to 16 are likely to face a difficulty with their mental health — a 50% rise over the last three years. Action for Children also say that ‘between 2021 and 2022 alone, the proportion of young people aged 17 to 19 in England with a mental health disorder jumped from one in six to one in four.’
In particular, anxiety is a growing concern among school pupils — but what exactly is childhood anxiety, and what are some of the most common causes behind it right now?
Academy 21 has extensive experience of working with hundreds of schools each year, alongside other organisations, to provide flexible support (including quality education and pastoral care) for learners to get back on track, re-engage with education, or improve their attendance so that they can return to mainstream education in the future.
Read on as we examine what sets anxiety apart from stress, the causes we’re seeing in today’s pupils, and the impact anxiety is having on education.
What is anxiety?
Mind (a leading mental health charity) describes anxiety as ‘a natural human response when we feel that we are under threat. It can be experienced through our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations.’ Many people have anxious thoughts, but not everyone experiences anxiety.
For some, anxiety may display itself in physical form (for example, panic attacks) and for others, it may be less outwardly obvious (for example, silence or sleeping heavily).
According to Mind, the symptoms of anxiety may include (but are not limited to):
- A churning in your stomach
- Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
- Pins and needles
- Feeling restless
- Headaches, backache, or other pains
- Faster breathing
- A fast, thumping, or irregular heartbeat
- Sweating or hot flushes
- Sleep problems
- Grinding teeth
- Nausea (feeling sick)
- Needing the toilet more or less often
- Having panic attacks
How can you tell if a pupil has anxiety?
It is important to remember that while educators cannot diagnose anxiety, they are able to support and look out for the signs. That’s why it’s crucial to be able to differentiate between anxious thoughts or stress and anxiety disorders.
For example, a student who is taking an exam and is worried about the outcome may display some of the signs of anxiety listed above, such as nausea and panic. This is a normal reaction, classified as stress or anxious thoughts rather than an anxiety disorder.
An anxiety disorder may be present if these thoughts and feeling continue past the stressful event. Young people may also experience many uncommon symptoms that are not always quickly linked to an anxiety diagnosis. These include symptoms that you may not be able to see in the classroom, such as a fast heart rate, trouble sleeping, and a change in eating habits.
What is causing anxiety in young people?
As the statistics show, there has been an alarming increase in mental health challenges among young people in this country, particularly in the post-Covid era. Action for Children say that 42% of children worry about mental health; compared to pre-pandemic figures, this is a 29% increase. There has never been a more urgent time than now for educators to collectively work together to support young people experiencing anxiety disorders and other mental health issues.
The learners we support at Academy21 have a diverse range of needs. Schools, local authorities, and parents and carers of young people with an education and health care plan (EHCP) refer pupils to us for a wide variety of reasons, including challenging behaviour, medical needs, and school refusal. Other young people referred to Academy21 include teenage mums and children in care.
Anxiety is just one of many reasons why Academy21 may support a pupil, but as our experienced teachers understand, many of the aforementioned circumstances (for example, teen parenthood or medical concerns that compromise immunity) can also lead to heightened anxiety — a subsequent effect of the situation they are in and the experiences they have had.
As such, it’s impossible to pin the causes of childhood anxiety down to just a few factors. That being said, when we examine the current landscape and the backgrounds of the pupils we work with, there are some causes and exacerbating factors that have risen notably in recent years.
1. Pressures at school
Many young people are also highly aware of the pressures on them to perform and achieve at school, particularly at exam level. As students gradually move closer to stepping outside of their familiar school environment and into post-16 training, further education, or the world of work, the impending reality of ‘real life’ can spark a sense of worry.
- What if they don’t achieve as well as they had hoped to?
- What if they don’t secure a job with a steady income?
- What will that mean for them and their life as an adult?
All of these questions are valid, yet they can cause extreme worry for many. Navigating these concerns, along with the potential myriad of other life challenges, can quickly become too much to handle. This is even more true for young carers or for students facing additional socio-economic challenges, and unsurprisingly, such pressures can take a toll on mental health.
2. Difficulty accessing support services
The landscape of education and support has certainly experienced a major shift in recent years (particularly since the Covid-19 pandemic), and young people are feeling the impact. Not only do they face long waiting lists for support services, but those services are also facing significant resourcing needs to keep up with demand.
Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and psychiatric services for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are pivotal in assisting neurodivergent young people and those with mental health needs. Yet, due to the combination of a lack of resources and an increase in demand, more and more children are falling through the gaps.
Unfortunately, many young people may never receive a diagnosis for their mental health or special educational needs (SEN), which can, in turn, affect their self-esteem and ability to cope.
TIP: Low self-esteem and challenging behaviours are key indicators for educators to recognise when looking out for mental health concerns like anxiety, and they should be approached as seriously as more outwardly evident symptoms. Remember, the behaviour you witness in a young person is often the top layer of many thoughts and feelings. Go deeper to understand ‘why’.
3. Poverty and financial concerns
Sadly, there is now a generation of young people who understand the term ‘cost-of-living crisis’ all too well. Today’s students are likely to be aware of the growing pressures whether they are affected by them or not, but more students than ever before are indeed living with financial difficulties themselves. Economic stressors are particularly tough on young people from low-income families, but even many middle-income families are starting to feel the pinch. With more hard conversations happening at home, children are increasingly surrounded by high levels of anxiety that can worsen their own worries.
According to Barnardo’s, more than 1 in 4 of all children in the UK now live in poverty. In their report, ‘At What Cost – the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on children and young people‘, Barnado’s states that ‘one study has shown that by the age of 11, children and young people living in poverty are four times more likely to develop mental health problems’.
In a recent article in The Guardian, London secondary teacher Nadeine Asbali highlighted the cost-of-living crisis as one of the main reasons why children are absent from school. Asbali pinpoints the alarming reality for students experiencing the effects of the cost-of-living crisis in a particularly poignant way:
‘No correct school shoes. No clean uniform. Having to look after younger siblings because of unsustainable childcare or parental illness. Homelessness or housing instability. Being unable to afford basic hygiene products such as sanitary towels or shampoo. Taking on a job to help with the bills. Attending benefits or immigration meetings to translate for parents. These are all reasons children are forced to miss school – and the most heartbreaking and frustrating fact is that so often these are the young people who most desperately want to be in the classroom learning.’
How anxiety becomes a barrier to learning
There are so many potential factors that can lead to a child’s refusal to attend school, but anxiety and mental health are undoubtedly common causes. Taking into account academic pressures, the cost-of-living crisis, and struggles to access support, it is no surprise that more and more children are avoiding school as a way of avoiding their anxieties.
The result? These children miss out on engaging in their learning and becoming equipped for their futures, which leads to a ‘catch-22’ cycle that only increases the anxiety they face.
How Academy21 can help
There’s no quick fix to the rise in anxiety and absences. The disruption the pandemic caused to schools has had a long-lasting effect on socialisation and learning that can’t be undone easily.
There are, however, solutions that get students back into learning and back on track for promising future outcomes.