I gave an assembly this morning that seemed to strike a chord with quite a few people, so I thought I would share it here.  Please feel free to use it if you think it would help your students.

A friend likes to share memes and inspirational quotes.  Sometimes I find it a bit much, and sometimes I think about unfollowing her.  And there was one such quote that nearly made me do that recently.  It was a picture of a small boy, probably about 10 years old, walking down a grassy track whilst the sun was setting, and above the image were the words: “Your child’s mental health is more important than their grades.” 
My first response to that was “too right”.  It’s true isn’t it?  If you don’t have your health, what do you have?  If you were to be in some terrible accident and lost all your limbs no one is going to tell you that you better not miss your Nat 5 exam tomorrow.  So it stands to reason that if you find out that you have a very serious mental illness, such as a bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, then the same logic applies – you probably shouldn’t worry about that Nat 5 exam.

But that’s not what my friend was getting at, and that was my problem with it.  What the author of that statement was saying was that exams can be so stressful that they threaten your mental health.  But I don’t think that’s true.  I think that’s a false dichotomy.  

Stress is the way you feel when you’re under abnormal pressure.  All sorts of situations can cause stress.  Work, exams, money issues, illnesses, relationships, family.  Major upheavals and life events such as divorce, unemployment, moving house and bereavement, will cause you a lot of stress.  And smaller or less clearcut things such as feeling undervalued, or vulnerable, or unsuccessful, can also be very stressful.  

You guys have it a little bit harder too: the release of kisspeptin into your brains heightens your emotions during adolescence.  This means that whilst you will enjoy things more intensely than adults, you will also feel some bad things more deeply.  Friendship issues can feel all-consuming, and coursework deadlines and exam pressure can bring a very real sense of doom.  Or those poor marks or hard-to-hear feedback that convince you that you must be born to fail.  Or when you post something on instagram and don’t get any likes.  Crushing.

But this begs a question – at what point does stress go from being something normal to being a medical mental health diagnosis?  There are a lot of blurry lines – there are not clear enough distinctions between a mental health issue, a mental health problem, a mental illness and a mental health disorder.  Anyone can feel a stressed or anxious about something.  Anyone can feel down or depressed about something.  But it is another thing to be diagnosed by a doctor as having depression or an anxiety disorder.  I personally know too many people of all ages who are diagnosed and receiving treatment for anxiety or depression.  Mental health issues are very real and it good that society and the medical world is increasing its understanding of these problems.  But I feel we have a duty not to medicalise normal feelings: we all face stress in our lives and that is a normal part of life.  

Perhaps society is being a bit quick to jump on the mental issues bandwagon – I think what is actually happening is that a great many of us have a fear that we can’t really live up to the expectations we create for ourselves when we view the constant supply of happy Facebook humblebrags and the like, and so we start to feel too inadequate or jealous or envious or angry or sad and that makes us more stressed.  Or we perceive that our teachers are telling us that we are failures, when actually they are trying to help you succeed.  Perception is everything.

Exams are stressful.  They’re meant to be.  Are they too stressful?  No.  Do I think everyone here can handle it?  Yes.  Some stress can be positive. Research shows it makes us more alert and can help us perform better in exams.  Are exams totally fair methods to test your knowledge and abilities?  No.  But exams are no more a marker of your worthiness as a human being than the number of likes you get on Facebook or Instagram indicate your actual popularity.  

You’re not alone, ask for help if you need it and let people know how you feel but most of all, focus on completing this very short-term goal.  Remember that exams are a hoop to be jumped through, or a game to be played strategically, and that they will take you on to the next thing you want to achieve.  Approach them in the same way athletes approach a race: understand what techniques needs to be deployed, have a plan, and picture yourself winning.  By doing so, you’ll turn stress into something positive that will spur you on.  Good luck.

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