Conversations that matter

Over the past five years working as a young person’s counsellor I have come to recognise how much our young people are being shaped and impacted on by their school environment. Sadly more often than not their deteriorating mental ill-health is directly linked to the school system and the ever increasing focus on academic outcomes.

Through 1:1 counselling I’ve come across countless insightful, emotionally articulate and creative young people who feel invalidated by their school experience and struggle not to fall in to a trap of negative self-esteem. At times these young people are savvy to the fact that it is not so much their failing but a failing of the system itself, however they feel adrift in knowing how to change their circumstances and often feel alone in what they are experiencing.

My work frequently involves supporting teenagers to affirm and validate themselves for who they are regardless of the messages they are getting in their learning environments. That they can still have a successful, happy and meaningful life even if they don’t get 9’s at GCSE! The reality that so many teenagers feel so negatively about themselves because they are being judged predominantly on their test results is both maddening and saddening. What more can be done I ask myself to support this next generation to flourish and to grow in to the fullest expressions of themselves…?

I write this now because the tide seems to be ever increasing. The number of teenagers coming through my counselling room with stress, anxiety and depression is growing. Many are internalising the idea that they are ‘not good enough’ and this at times is leading to destructive and self-harming behaviours.

Environments impact on us, and my real sense is something fundamental needs to be addressed within the system if we are to begin to turn the tide on our young people’s deteriorating mental health. As adults more often than not have a choice about whether we stay in a job or move on. Most young people don’t have this option with school.

I can teach the teens I see strategies to help them manage their anxiety, stress and depressive feelings; provide a place for them to feel heard, validated and understood but if each day they have to get up and go in to an environment that doesn’t affirm a large percentage of who they are we are both fighting a loosing battle.

I am witness to such maturity, wisdom and self awareness in the young people I come in to contact with through my work. What shines through in the opportunity to be seen for who they are truly inspires and heartens me. Surely there is a way we can provide spaces and adapt our schools to allow more young people to be recognised and validated beyond just their intellectual capacity?

The future we are heading towards is an unknown in so many ways, the jobs of tomorrow will little resemble the jobs of today yet we continue to push our children through an antiquated system designed for an old paradigm. Climate change, austerity and an uncertain job market surely means the focus needs to be much more on future-proofing our young, supporting them to find ways to foster resilience and nurture their self-esteem and creativity as opposed to the regurgitation of facts?!

I don’t think I as an individual have an answer to this. It just felt important to bring to the fore what i’m experiencing in my work in respect and acknowledgement of the many young voices i’ve heard over the years. Facilitating ‘conversations that matter’ in the counselling room can go some way towards supporting them to gain perspective on the challenges they are experiencing, helping them find ways to get through school with their self-esteem more intact, but I desire more than this for them. I would like to advocate for more opportunities to have meaningful conversations with our young generation. Whether that be through the practice of active listening on a one to one basis or through school based focus groups that allow young people to feed in to the re-shaping of their education to cater more holistically to them as developing human beings.

If you are a parent and feel called to action I would really encourage you to write to the headteacher of your local school with your concerns asking how pastoral and mental-health support is funded? You could also ask for evidence of ACTIVE school strategies (strategies that encourage arts/apprenticeships and vocational learning), as a counterpoint to league table and grade expectations.

Similarly write to your local MP and or the press expressing your concerns; for at the end of the day the well-being of our young really is a collective responsibility!

Nikki Simpson is an accredited person centred counsellor working in private practice. She holds a post qualifying diploma in counselling children and adolescents and has formerly held the post of school counsellor in a Gloucestershire school.