Cover Story

‘Piloting the rapids’

Tim Hands (Winchester College) considers young people’s transition from school to university

Mark Twain had it about right. “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” Mark Twain, problematically, also had it half wrong.

Adolescent mental health has become a buzz phrase – and alas unhelpfully, rather than helpfully. The very word “adolescent”, on adult lips, sounds to the adolescent condescending, almost as though said with a de haut en bas sneer. It suggests that adulthood is almost a transcendent state, partly characterised by leaving such immature problems behind, with a further occasional implication that the problems in adolescence are in part a consequence of culpable adolescent lifestyles.

The list of explanations given by adults for the “new” problem of adolescent mental health is usually threefold. First up is the unremitting pressure to succeed, especially with an examination system which permits no second chances. Second is the new social media, bringing maximum attention to identity at a time when identity is emergent and at its most sensitive. Third, there is what some call the pathologising of the ordinary, whereby what was previously an unpleasant necessity, like a public exam, produces “stress”, stress being a pseudo-professional shorthand for a pseudo-clinical condition which no longer requires the determined application or stiff upper lip of yesteryear, but an altogether new form of counselling or clinical treatment.

A concerned and deservedly insistent pupil recently told me there were two equally important additional factors. Today’s children, he argued, are in many cases not overlooked but over-looked-after, pampered, protected: growing up involves for them the assumption of a responsibility previously not experienced, and for which they feel underprepared. Many of today’s parents are wealthier, he continued – and often they are wealthier because they are more ambitious, more pushy, more grudging, more overweening, but they are also sometimes (and quite confusingly) more indulgent as well.

The vicious circle of adolescent experience consists of five Ps in total: pressurising, personalising, professionalising, pampering, and finally back round to pressurising (this time of the parental, not societal kind) all over again.

Problems of transition

What might adolescents legitimately think of us adults? Three things send adults to their GP.

Adults don’t think them at all unusual – or even necessarily talk to their children about them. This discomforting trinity comprises changing home, changing job, and changing relationships (such as losing a parent to old age, or a partnership to a premature ending). Generically, these are all problems of transition. The problems of transition for a 13 year-old or an 11 year-old are pretty much exactly the same. Take a young girl or boy who starts boarding, starts in a new school, and starts having to build completely new relationships with a different set of people. Snap (to use a doubly appropriate term). We shouldn’t say adolescent mental health but simply mental health. What we need is better communication, and more effective paddling, by those who are in the same transitional boat.

An effective approach to this problem would be holistic and joined up, and involve better communication and proactive care. Do our schools make transition easy enough? Obviously not. Several of the mechanisms which used to exist no longer do so. References – both those received from feeder schools and those sent on to universities – are frequently at best guarded, and may sometimes contain significant feats of omission. Old systems – like the convention that the chaplain of the school wrote to the pupil’s future university chaplain if there were any emotional complications – have inevitably, if regrettably, disappeared. We are left with an increasing multiplicity of data about the individual academic brain but little about the individual emotional psychology. We monitor the blood pressure, as it were, but take no readings from the heart.

Worse, perhaps, we regard life as less a continuum than a set of self-contained episodes. What happens in the feeder school stays in the feeder school; what happens in the secondary school stays in the secondary school; what happens in the university stays in the university et cetera et cetera. Points of transition are terminations of communication, when a little continuity of care may be most what is required. We transfer the baby, in other words, without sufficient concern about the history in the bathwater.

Mental health still attracts a stigma it would be good to be rid of. In the end it will happen, and at that point the information will at last freely flow within legitimate frameworks of confidentiality and data protection. Until then we need to do better with what we have – or rather don’t yet have.

Data-resourced preparation

In American universities, where the consequences of dropping out have acute financial penalties for the institution, serious efforts are made to develop systems which are independent and predictive. Research shows, for example, those departments which are more likely to retain male rather than female students. Postcodes do the same: those from the eastern and western seaboards are much less likely to have difficulties at a high ranking university than those who come from the middle of the country. Ethnicity inevitably plays an additional part, and parental background probably the greatest. So before you arrive at university, any university that is smart is prepared for you. The ambulance knows your location well before anyone puts in the 999 call.

No UK school I know of systematically sets about preparation for transition in this data-resourced way. Currently, some UK schools give psychological tests to pupils on arrival as a form of mental health triage. Perhaps it’s about time we started to do something more fulsome.

We do not just have a problem with adolescent mental health. We have a problem with mental health generally. Let’s put our heads together and try to come up with better systems of transition. At the moment adolescents and adults are thought of differently. Unless we change, it may be a singularly unfortunate case of never the Twain shall meet.