Managing Mental Health in the Last Year of School

By 96five Wednesday 12 Sep 2018

By: Rachel Doherty

Finishing school carries a lot of stress for teenagers. Where they’ve had some depression, anxiety or other mental ill-health, Year 12 can be too much.

Everyone has to finish school at some point. Some finish well, some barely get there and most drift through okay.

No matter how well they do, the last year of school is a bewildering time for young people. They’re bombarded with ideas and expectations about what they should do after school. They feel the pressure to bury themselves in study to get good marks.

Then there are the usual stresses of the teen years too. Learning to drive. Relationships. Balancing study, work and play… It’s no wonder that the mental health of many school leavers can get messed up.

“Learning never exhausts the mind.’ – Leonardo Da Vinci

An Australian survey in 2015 found that one in 14 young people have anxiety. Another five percent have clear symptoms of depression. At some point, all these kids will find themselves in the last year of high school.

If you’re supporting one of these teens, then keep reading for the things you can do to help your child through this tricky year.

Mental health monsters in the final year of school

Before my own children reached the last years of school, I thought the hype of finishing well came from the schools. After all, most schools want to show they produce great academic results. Anyone who doesn’t survive is just collateral damage.

But my opinion has changed. Now I think the pressure to do well reaches a frenzy among the young people themselves.

Most schools do a great job of suggesting career options beyond medicine and engineering at university. They lay out a smorgasbord of jobs, study options, career paths and gap year ideas to enable young people to choose what suits them.

They also have lots of support systems in place to identify young people who aren’t coping well; to help them transition out of school as best as they can.

But school leavers seem to ignore this adult wisdom. They fuel each others’ doubts and worries about what they will do next year. They stress about upcoming exams and assignments. They stress if they’re not stressed enough.

It reminds me of a scene Finding Nemo where all the fish are swimming the same way and then realise the net is coming and turn in a panic.

Sometimes our teenagers feel the same.

How to support school leavers to finish well

With so many pressures, school leavers need someone to keep an eye on them. We need to look out for signs that they’re not coping and help them maintain balance. Here’s my tips for keeping them going:

1. Keep them focused on the goal. Many school leavers have no idea what they want to do when they leave school, causing them to panic. Get them to set a realistic goal anyway. Have a list of ideas that they think they’d like to pursue, and work out what study or work options would get them there. Then work back to what grades they will need to get for that pathway. It might be a B in most subjects but a pass in Chemistry. Be willing to look for a detour to get to their end goal too. Like getting into a science degree and then moving over to something higher.

2. Talk up the importance of keeping their options open. Most young people today will have many careers, so they don’t need to choose something for the next 40 years. In fact, many of the jobs our kids will do are still evolving. Focus more on the skills, talents and interests they have and how these might lead to work later.

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” – William Butler Yeats

3. Promote balance. Studying too much for a year or two isn’t good for anyone’s health. Get them to think about how they can work towards their goals but enjoy the journey of finishing school too. There should be time for social activities, sport, a bit of work and all that study, along with time to procrastinate and do nothing.

4. Encourage them to swim against the tide. If everyone else is panicking, we need to encourage our young people to stick to their game plan. To not get too concerned about what everyone else thinks. Remind them that their plan is a good one, it plays to their strengths and it’s going to work for them. If they hit an obstacle, tell them they’re tough enough to work their way around it.

Person typing on laptop computer.
5. Get help early. If you think a young person you care about isn’t coping with the stress, get help early. Most schools have excellent counselling services. These people know all about how stressful Year 12 is. They will also be familiar with the ebb and flow of the year. They can give teenagers career advice to make sure they’re setting realistic goals. If that doesn’t work, go higher and see your family doctor or seek a referral to a psychiatrist. If teenagers are showing signs of depression for more than a few weeks and all the support you can muster at home and school isn’t working, don’t let it fester.

Keep an eye on their social media use as much as you can, and make sure that it’s being a friend, not a foe

6. Watch the impact of social media. It’s a great tool for young people to share ideas, encourage one another and collaborate, but social media can also be a secret place that fuels unhealthy thinking. So keep an eye on their social media use as much as you can, and make sure that it’s being a friend, not a foe.

7. Relish the breaks. School holidays are a good chance for kids to take a break from their everyday routine; get out in the sunshine and wear themselves out physically. Don’t let them study right through or hide away on the computer.

8. Keep them active and well fed. During stressful periods, exercise and healthy food are simple ways to keep life in perspective and keep our body working well. Don’t underestimate the value of an afternoon walk, shooting some hoops, or the family dinner.

9. Make sleep a priority. Teenagers who are feeling pressured at school can sacrifice sleep to focus on study. Help your teens get into good sleeping habits so they don’t make the problem worse by being too tired in class.

10. Get help yourself. Supporting a young person who is anxious, depressed, self-harming or suicidal is draining. Make sure you get some help too. Tap into some counselling and find a supportive friend to have coffee with. If you work with young people, attend professional supervision on a regular basis.

Some other resources on this topic worth checking out are:

Surviving Year 12 by Youth BeyondBlue
7 tips for managing exam stress from ReachOut

But the best advice comes from Finding Nemo again. It’s that all school leavers need a good buddy for the journey. Someone they can celebrate with when it’s all over. Because let’s face it, there’s a lot of life after school.

Article supplied with thanks to Tweens 2 Teen.

About the author: Rachel Doherty helps those living and working with young people, through supervision, coaching, speaking and consulting.

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