January (Januworry) is not an easy time of year. Christmas is a distant memory, the largest credit card bill you will get all year has just appeared in your inbox and you are also likely (certain for some of us) to have recently broken your last remaining New Year’s resolution.

Depending on your perspective, it can be made worse (possibly better for parents) given that it’s ‘back to school’ as the endless post-Christmas promotions remind us.

A surprising statistic about school

It appears the fairly coercive rigours of school can take its toll on young people. An article in Psychology Today cites 2015 research examining the number of weekly visits for psychiatric reasons at a paediatric emergency mental health department in Los Angeles. It was found that, “…the rate of such visits in weeks when school was in session was 118% greater than in weeks when school wasn’t in session. In other words, the rate of emergency psychiatric visits was more than twice as high during school weeks as it was during non-school weeks.”

These statistics also include suicidal ideation and suicidal attempt. Both of these are higher amongst children when school is in session. For boys, who may have a harder time fitting in with the expectations and demands of school, the suicide rate is 95% higher during the school months whereas for girls, it was 33% higher. “Stated differently, when girls commit suicide, school is apparently less likely to be a cause than is the case for boys.” Peter Gray.

A poem for teachers

Teachers too can feel the stress and strain of the school term. As an educator my heart often lurches mid holiday as I think of the term ahead. Such lurches increase in regularity the closer the start of term staff meeting draws closer. During one such melancholic bout I penned this short poem.

What’s this disturbs my hard won peace,
This growing feeling of dis-ease?
A rising tide of mild anxiety,
Adding weight to my sobriety.

All was well short days ago,
When evenings glimmered and mornings glowed.
But now a shadow obscures my vision,
To pierce my heart with swift incision.

I know it now this unwelcome stirring,
It is a nightmare reoccurring.
Four times a year to be precise,
My mind is held in grip like vice.

A calendarised form of mental torture,
Assails my neurons every quarter.
Such scheduled assault upon my reason,
My mental illness follows seasons!

Michaelmas, Christmas, Pentecost, Lent,
Each rolls round without relent.
The source of stress I now confirm,
It is the start of another school term.

God at work

As your thoughts turn to the year ahead try to manage them by practising these tips by Ken Costa in his book ‘God at Work’.

  • Take joy seriously. As Paul says ‘be joyful always’. When you find yourself overwhelmed, intentionally focus on something that brings you joy. Notice how one child cares for another or step out of the classroom to smell the rain as it interacts with the dusty streets. Try it now.
  • Minister in the opposite spirit. Schools can become competitive and even cynical places. Determine to meet negative emotions with positive ones. If a colleague criticises some aspect of your work try and commend them on some area of theirs (or at least answer gently). As Paul says ‘when we are slandered, we answer kindly’.
  • Control your thoughts. Your mind is a gateway so, as it says in Philippians, ‘if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things’. If it helps limit your anxious thoughts to a ‘worry time’, a daily moment to think about or write, your concerns. By deferring these thoughts it helps you manage them more effectively

Share this article, or chat about these issues, with colleagues. It helps to realise we are not alone. Let’s remember that school can be a stressful and anxiety provoking environment for all concerned, pupils, parents and teacher alike. Let’s work together and be kind to each other this year.