Supporting Mental Health in Schools and Students’ Future Careers

Supporting Mental Health in Schools and Students’ Future Careers

In the early 2000s, it was reported that young people’s mental health should not be ignored. Research found that:

  • 20% of adolescents may experience a mental health problem in any given year
  • 50% of mental health issues are established by the age of 14 and 75% by the age of 24
  • 10% of children and young people between the ages of 5 and 16 years have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem

The Mental Health Foundation’s 2020 survey identified a new influencing factor and reported that 75% of life-long mental health conditions manifest before the age of 18 among British teenagers, and the COVID-19 pandemic is only going to aggravate this.

From witnessing adults arguing at home to developing sleep problems, or even self-harming, indeed, the pandemic has significantly affected students’ lives. They’ve been battling general fear and isolation as well as learning loss caused by COVID-19.

On top of all that, their future plans have become increasingly uncertain. Young people are finding themselves under serious pressure with career planning, from figuring out what jobs would still be secure in this changing landscape to the troubles of finding apprenticeships or graduate positions as employers are forced to decrease headcount.

In this article, we’ll look at:

The state of mental health of UK students: 15 COVID- and education-related statistics

Connecting students’ mental health to learning and careers education

How careers leaders can provide mental health support to students and prepare them for their futures?

The state of mental health of UK students: 15 COVID- and education-related statistics

COVID-19 had an overly negative impact on the mental health of UK students, as confirmed by several studies, which have shown alarming numbers from the perspective of education, learning loss and (suddenly) changing career aspects:

  • Over one-third of children aged 5 to 16 years had a parent who felt their child was nearly equally worried about friends and family catching COVID-19 (36.7%) and about missing school/work (37.7%). (NHS, 2020)
  • 25% of British teenagers said they had trouble concentrating on schoolwork, reading or watching TV, most or nearly all days. (MHF, 2020)
  • 68% of British teenagers said the pandemic will make the future worse for the people their age. (MHF, 2020)
  • 96% of young people, aged 11 to 25 years old, reported that their mental health had affected their schoolwork, with 95% of school staff agreeing that mental health problems affected some students’ learning. (Mind, 2021)
  • 65% of students reported being absent from school due to their mental health. (Mind, 2021)
  • 78% of students said that school has worsened their mental health, as academic achievement was prioritised at the expense of well-being. (Mind, 2021)
  • 35% of young people, between the ages of 11 to 25, said they didn’t want mental health support from their school as they didn’t consider it a trusted setting. (Mind, 2021)
  • In 2020, graduate employers planned to recruit 12% fewer graduates, 32% fewer apprentices and school leavers, and 40% fewer interns and placement students than they had before the pandemic; leaving students and graduates’ offers postponed, changed or withdrawn after the application process. (Institute of Student Employers & AGCAS, 2020)
  • 27% of 6,500+ students and graduates changed their career plans due to the pandemic and 37% are still uncertain about what they will do. (Prospects/Jisc, 2021)
  • Three quarters of 6,500 students and graduates have looked for an apprenticeship or training scheme in the last 12 months as an alternative to study, to start earning money, showing how the focus of young people’s career plans might be shifting. (Prospects/Jisc, 2021)
  • Only 18% of students secured a graduate position during the pandemic in 2020, compared to 60% of Gen Z who were about to leave university in the period before the COVID-19 outbreak. Of that 18%, 60% are still worried that their offers will be retracted or put on hold. Graduates are worried they won’t be able to secure a job before graduation (52%), there won’t be enough opportunities for them (49%), there will be more competition (43%) and their salaries will be impacted (25%) (Milkround, 2020)
  • Only 8% of students found an internship for the summer in 2020, and of those, 63% reported the pandemic being a key barrier, with over a third of positions being terminated (37%), moved online (17%) or shortened (17%). (Milkround, 2020)
  • 25% of students struggle to find apprenticeship opportunities in their area, while 45% of university students and 36% of college/sixth form students feel unprepared for work in this COVID era. (Prospects/Jisc, 2021)
  • When asked about their top four challenges of the year, 26% of school pupils answered ‘Taking care of my mental health’ in the first place and 21% mentioned ‘Keeping up with my studies’ as the second most challenging. For College/sixth form students, keeping motivated in their studies came in the top spot (33%), followed by taking care of their mental health (22%). Nearly the same results were reported for university students, with 25% struggling with motivation the most and 20% with their mental health. (Prospects/Jisc, 2021)
  • 51% of students reported that concerns about school, college or university work had a negative impact on their mental health during the pandemic, with 14% also mentioning concerns about getting a job. (YoungMinds, 2021)

This list of statistics illustrates a powerful image of students’ battles over the pandemic as they were and still are attempting to find their place in education (and life). Feeling overwhelmed and stuck between the effects of COVID learning loss and the new challenges of preparing for their future is something careers leaders have to take into consideration.

woman covering her face with a textbook

Photo by Siora Photography

Connecting students’ mental health to learning and careers education

Let’s take a more practical view of some of the main mental health issues that have contributed to students’ changing perspectives on learning and their career planning, as a consequence of the pandemic.

In other words, let’s see what problems and questions about their future might be keeping your students awake at night.

Learning loss, worries about schoolwork and future jobs

COVID-19 has changed the way schools operate. With periods of no teaching at all and turning to digital learning more heavily for the rest of the time, curriculums became harder to follow. As both educators and students had to adjust, young people have also had to contend with learning loss and the uncertainty of how to make decisions about their future.

Will I be ready for my post-secondary education? Do I know enough to be hired for this apprenticeship? Am I fully prepared to make decisions now about my future career? 

These questions might have always been there in young people’s minds but we have to admit: the feeling of being unprepared for work has appeared in a new light in the times of COVID-19.

According to the NHS, more than 28% of children had a parent in the household who had been furloughed or made use of the self-employed support scheme. Parental job loss occurred in 6.2% of households, with over 28% experiencing a reduction in income during the pandemic.

Watching the changes in the labour market in real time is certainly enough to disturb young people’s mental health and behaviour, and make them lose their motivation for planning their careers.

The pressure of exams or no exams

Due to the pandemic, students have experienced both scenarios: they were either pressured by upcoming exams or the absence of them.

If they had exams to prepare for, they were usually worried as they didn’t partake in the normal preparation process. They might have had to learn more in a shorter amount of time (due to lockdowns) or adjusting to the new frameworks, along with some new challenges (remote learning).

If exams got cancelled (even if temporarily), that was another alert for those about to leave secondary education behind: how will I be properly valued from an academic perspective?

It’s not hard to imagine how both types of situations can feed into developing mental health issues for students, and making 78% of them report that school itself had made their mental health worse.

They feel enormous pressure, especially when studying for GCSEs and A-levels, alongside worrying about not getting good enough results — mixing in the uncertainty around whether exams will or will not take place is certainly not helpful. This leads us to the next point.

Lack of a school routine

According to a 2020 survey, 88% of school staff said students’ mental health worsened during the pandemic because of a loss of routine, social isolation, and limited access to support.

While 50% of British teenagers said they had been unable to stop worrying at times during the pandemic, 58% also felt they have had no one to talk to, ‘some of the time’ or ‘often’ during the pandemic.

The lack of routine, a sense of continuity and support in a school environment can easily lead to lower engagement and disappearing motivation for students — both in general and especially when it comes to planning their future (‘If there’s no system or order in my life right now, how am I supposed to plan the rest of it?’).

Both are important matters educators have to pay attention to and it’s best to turn to ideas and tools that can help even in unique settings such as the pandemic. Technology is one (more on that in the next section).

Lower career confidence

Students had to face the harsh realities of the new, COVID-affected job market. The number of opportunities decreased, many great applications might have been rejected instantly or perhaps after a complex interview process due to a sudden decision on the employer’s side (such as the need for lowering headcount).

Young people felt this pressure deeply and even if they had the perfect career plan ready, the pandemic probably shattered their confidence about their choices in a couple of months or even days. Many had to think again about which university to apply to, if they should go for an apprenticeship or dive into ‘real work’, or which career paths were still open given the new circumstances.

In addition, educators have to pay attention, as pessimism can increase steadily with age. The survey of Mental Health Foundation revealed shocking numbers: 57% of 13 year-olds said life will be worse for their age group, and 78% of 19 year-olds said the same.

Rethinking the dream job

As the pandemic hit, many students, at least a quarter of them, have reached for the gear stick when it came to their dream job and realising their plans for getting there. Two main reasons were and are likely behind this.

Some students could have been inspired by professions that were pushed into the limelight as a response to COVID-19; most notably those in healthcare and teaching. Others were perhaps a bit more practical and just wanted to avoid stepping into an industry that was significantly struggling during these times, such as travel or hospitality.

However students suddenly wish(ed) to reimagine their future and change career paths, teachers and especially careers leaders have a great, renewed responsibility in guiding them.

Two hands passing a paper heart

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

How can careers leaders give mental health support to students and prepare them for their future

In a National Education Union survey, school and college staff shared what barriers presented themselves as they started attempting the mental health of students in our current pandemic era. They mentioned the pressure to catch up with learning loss (66%), the lack of face-to-face support of students (65%), workload (58%), and also the ‘narrowing of the curriculum generally’ (34%).

There are clearly many blockers in the system now — it’s not hard to imagine how some would question the importance of careers education or how others would stress that core curriculum be prioritised.

However, while students, alongside adults and all generations, experienced the general pressures of the pandemic, they also found themselves in a unique situation: as discussed, many were and are literally at the dawn of something new. In the intervening years to come, these moments will have shaped them as future professionals. 

This is not something that can be ignored in the midst of current challenges. In fact, according to a survey by the UK Government’s Department for Education, those who had clearer career plans as graduates were more likely to have reported positive outcomes (employment or further study) two and a half years after graduation.

In this sense, the work of careers leaders has never been more important and never been more complex. Their job is not only to guide students toward their future careers but to take part in supporting their mental health along the way and in any way it is possible in their field.

Let’s see some tips for how careers leaders can empower students to look forward. This positive attitude will not only help with their future readiness but inevitably ensure support for their mental health.

Keep students motivated

As seen from the statistics, motivation is the first thing to go when students are under pressure. Exploring their career goals can be motivational in itself, and right now, giving them reassurance that it is still sensible to make plans in the first place, is highly valuable.

As a careers leader, you should know that self-assessment is an important part of career planning, leading to not only education but general life success. Furthermore, this is in direct relation to social-emotional learning that, among others, ensures better coping mechanisms for students to tackle everyday challenges.

66% of British teenagers have worried that the pandemic would affect their mental and emotional wellbeing. Motivation can be hard to find in a situation like this, but you can show them how careful career planning might be one of the pieces to help them feel more on track.

Xello, our careers education software, allows students to take personality and learning style tests to help them with self-assessment. Skills Lab will also show them suitable career paths based on which skills they’d like to rely on the most in their future.

Maintain communication and engagement

The importance of communication cannot be understated. It is written with capital letters in the big book of educators and, your guess is right, it’s something that became absolutely crucial and essential in our COVID-infused world.

An NHS survey found that during the pandemic, one in 10 children and young people between the ages of 11 and 22 said that they often or always felt lonely, with a higher percentage among girls (13.8%) than boys (6.5%), and a higher prevalence for those with a probable mental health disorder. Those aged 7 to 22 years with a disorder were also more likely to report often or always feeling lonely than those without it (35% vs 5.1%).

Whether they have received the needed support, is questionable. On one hand, the same survey reported that over 76% without a mental health disorder had regular support from their school or college, while 62% of those who had a probable mental disorder experienced the same.

On the other hand, according to Mind’s 2021 report, 35% of young people between the ages of 11 to 25, didn’t even want mental health support from their school as they didn’t consider it a trusted setting. 48% also said they had been disciplined at school for behaviour that was due to their mental health.

As a careers professional, you could view this as an opportunity to advocate even more for your students, ensuring communication is never swept under the rug. Young people may be even more open to you than toward the regular teaching staff.

Careers leaders have a range of tools at their disposal to keep open lines of communication and raise student engagement at the same time, especially via technology that is already a familiar part of young people’s lives.

Xello offers interactive lessons and assignments for students, following along the lines of ‘learning while having fun’. The Matchmaker assessment is a playful way for them to learn which careers fit them and the Storyboard feature allows them to visualise their future creatively — these are just a couple of options that can help keep up your students’ engagement.

Be flexible and patient

The COVID-19 era has become the epitome of changing times. As discussed above and seen in the statistics, young people are getting confused and uncertain about their everyday lives, all while facing cornerstone decisions in their lives. One of them being: what career should I choose?

significantly high number of students (68%) reported being absent from school due to their mental health during the pandemic. This, combined with the struggles of learning loss, isolation from friends, and facing a future that may seem overwhelmingly uncertain, paves the way for them to say: ‘I can’t even keep up with my regular studies, what’s the point in career planning?’

Careers leaders have to be understanding here but at the same time, carefully educate and excite students about the importance of preparing for their future. There should be a balance between setting deadlines and flexibility. Deadlines prove to students that not all routines have disappeared, while a certain level of flexibility demonstrates an awareness of extraordinary circumstances. In this case, exploring career pathways is what counts — rather than punishing students for handing in a late essay on a career fair.

Careers leaders can set deadlines for students to complete interactive lessons or individual assignments in Xello, but essentially, students have the freedom to engage with the software the way it suits them best. The platform also makes it easy for careers professionals to monitor progress, gain insights, and follow up when necessary.

Keep up with the changes in the job market

Be in the know and inform your students about what they can expect in the job market while the pandemic is present and what’s likely to happen after it’s part of the past. This can greatly help with the state of their mental health.

As discussed above, many students changed their career plans, whether they were inspired to choose another profession or recognised the industries that have been highly affected and decided not to pursue those pathways.

As a mix of these, when asked which sector they would pick in the pandemic era, the top three choices for college/sixth form and university graduates were health (11%), business and finance (9%) and education (7%).

With Xello, careers leaders can always offer up-to-date labour market information (LMI) to their students. The software is home to a database of 500+ careers, 3500+ college and uni, 20,000+ course and apprenticeship profiles. Students can see which careers are in demand and even read interviews with the representatives of each profession, providing them with real-life stories and descriptions of the jobs they might want to have one day.

Show students how technology can be their friend

Technical difficulties with digital learning or fatigue caused by all-day online lessons has become more prevalent for students as a result of the pandemic. However, it cannot be disputed that the pivot to online learning offered by technology is what helped educators keep in touch with their students and maintain the solid flow of the curriculum.

Careers education, combined with the right technology, is a great example of how to leverage planning for the future as a means to help students overcome the feelings of uncertainty and malaise caused by the present.

Career planning is a future-facing activity on its own and combined with edtech software, like Xello, can provide a bridge for both educators and students in uncertain times, such as a pandemic. It’s a perfect tool for schools to use as they implement their digital learning initiatives, and a way to keep up students’ engagement remotely.

Good edtech software will adapt to the needs and interests of young people, and as experienced during the pandemic, it should help with simply replanning their future plans under unexpected circumstances. 

Xello will deliver on that with a range of features that align to the traditional careers journey. Students build self-knowledge through assessments, like Matchmaker and Skills Lab. They explore career, college, university and apprenticeship profiles, and then create as many goals and plans as they want. Finally, students are continuously challenged to reassess their plans as they build self-knowledge and awareness throughout secondary school.

Xello addresses careers leaders’ needs as well: saving time, assuring better collaboration with students and their families, helping them increase students’ engagement, and supporting their work to evidence progress towards achieving the Gatsby Benchmarks or being prepared for occasional Ofsted inspections.

Book your free Xello demo and see how it can support your careers education strategy. Provide a great example of supporting students’ mental health and behaviour in your school by showing how careers education and social-emotional learning practices are interlinked, and how technology can be the net to unite them all.

Laptop with a Xello screenshot showing the educator tool engagement screen

Book your personalised Xello demo and start measurably increasing your students’ engagement with career planning