Anxiety and other mental health issues are increasingly taking a toll on Australian students completing their Year 12 exams this year, experts say. Figures from South Australia and New South Wales show an increase in students needing rest breaks, extra time and other provisions to ensure they make the grade.
Adelaide-based child psychologist Kirrilie Smout said each week her practice sees up to 10 Year 12 students who are trying to manage anxiety and depression.
“They’re sitting there looking at assignments and revision and thinking, ‘Am I going to be able to do this? Can I get this finished? Am I going to be able to pass? Am I going to get the marks that I need?'” she said.
Many are battling with their final year of high school, and Dr Smout said the stressors these days are far greater than they once were.
“Now we’re also looking at a changed job market, potentially some of the careers that young people want to get into are much higher,” she said.
“There’s financial stresses on young people, they’re thinking about can they afford to pay bills for phones, can they afford to go and buy a house.
“There’s also stresses related to technology and how they use technology, there’s stresses related to dealing with mental health issues, which we know are higher than they were a few decades ago.”
Vulnerable students aided by special provisions
New figures from the South Australian Certificate of Education, or SACE Board, show just over 1,150 Year 12 students applied for special provisions in 2015, with almost a third dealing with a psychological illness like anxiety and depression.
Professor Jennie Hudson, the director of the Centre for Emotional Health at Macquarie University, said New South Wales students are also under pressure.
“We’ve also in NSW experienced a significant increase in the number of children requesting special provisions, and also the number that have been approved as well,” she said.
“That’s had a massive increase, I think around 62 per cent since 2011.”
Those provisions mean students can take rest breaks, sit the exam in a separate room or be given extra time.
Professor Hudson said while some do need them, there are better alternatives to the broad use of special provisions.
“If a child throughout their schooling life requests these special provisions during exams and they never actually seek treatment then that can perhaps help to maintain their problem with anxiety,” she said.
“So for me what I’d like to be seeing is people, rather than requestion special provision for exams, that they’re seeking evidence-based help to make a difference.”
Sharon Pearce, the SACE coordinator at Pulteney Grammar School in Adelaide, said special provisions can help vulnerable students get through.
“I’ve found in the past the rest breaks for students, it just gives them the opportunity to have a break, get their thoughts together, try to get rid of all those other thoughts in their heads that are going around and around and get their focus back onto the exam in front of them,” she said.
Ms Pearce said early intervention measures from on campus counsellors help keep the need for special provisions to a minimum.
“We do give them lots and lots of support throughout and by making sure that we get them to access anything that they need early, rather than leaving it until it’s a little bit too late, probably does actually help.”
Mental health issues on the rise
While schools are much better at providing help to those at-risk, some do slip through the cracks.
Centacare Youth Suicide Intervention trainer Elaine Reynolds said too often she needs to step in because students are having suicidal thoughts.
“We’re now (at) over 3,000 people dying in Australia in 2015 – that’s scary, that’s nearly eight deaths a day and a high percentage are youth.”
Dr Smout said there has certainly been a rise in the number of young people presenting with mental health issues over the years, but it is difficult to know why.
“Is this because more people are experiencing mental health problems or is this because we are better at recognising and treating them?” she said.
“There’s probably a combination of factors going on. There’s a lot more awareness and many more programs on offer”
Despite the grim figures, Dr Smout said there is reason for optimism when it comes to young people and mental health.
“We’re certainly as a society far more aware of the problems that can come up, we have a whole lot more support in place for young people that we didn’t have a few decades ago, we’re starting to understand how mental health and emotional health affect us, how the various factors work,” she said.
“We’re starting to work out how we treat it better.”