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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 August 2006, 08:47 GMT 09:47 UK
When exam stress becomes too much
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News education reporter

Anne Parry
There is no single way to spot suicidal tendencies, Anne Parry says
Stress is part of life, but there are times when it seems worse than usual.

Getting married, suffering a bereavement, even buying a house: all sorts of events add to the worry.

Hundreds of thousands of teenagers have had their first taste of extreme stress this summer, first with exams then the long wait for results.

If grades do not meet expectations, they can become a source of depression, of humiliation.

In a few cases, the disappointment can lead to suicide. Twelve years ago, Anne Parry's 21-year-old son Lewis took his own life following his university exam results.

'Indescribable'

Anne, now chairman of Papyrus, a charity committed to the prevention of suicide in young people, said: "It's indescribable. It's not something I would wish on my worst enemy.

"Suicide isn't like any other form of death really. I'm not belittling any other form of death, but suicide is a form you can't get your head around.

"The ripple effect of a suicide is phenomenal. Even people who didn't really know the person can be traumatised by it."

Teachers often say that someone 'could do better', but they can't always do better
Anne Parry

According to Anne, a former science teacher, there is no "single way" for parents to distinguish between ordinary exam stress and suicidal tendencies.

However, there seem to be some common behavioural signs.

Those at risk often have a very sensitive nature, find it hard to cope with criticism or disappointment, or have difficulties finding solutions to everyday problems.

They also tend to be perfectionists, setting themselves unrealistic targets.

While most parents and teachers encourage children to do their best at school, college or university, Anne thinks there is a fine line between this and exerting too much pressure.

Hidden numbers

"For some young people it can all become too much - culminating in distress at varying levels and, for a small minority, in suicidal behaviour.

"Every year around this time we hear of yet another young person who has taken their own life 'because of the exams'.

"What we don't hear about are the huge numbers of young people who consider suicide and those who actually make a suicide attempt.

"Clearly this subject needs to be on parents' and teachers' agenda.

"Teachers often say that someone 'could do better', but they can't always do better - intelligence and motivation do not always go hand in hand.

"We sometimes hear a story of a young person who has taken his or her life after their university exams, some when they have gained an upper-second-class degree rather than a first.

"Don't pressure young people, particularly if you know that they're conscientious anyway. Encourage them to take time out.

"We mislead young people into thinking the only way forward in life is to get good GCSEs, A-levels and then a degree. That's not the case."

Each year, between 600 and 800 people under the age of 24 in the UK take their own lives.

There are no figures for how many of these cases are exam-related. A review of the inquests system is looking into whether more detailed information on suicide causes should be provided to official statisticians.

Results day fears

Whatever the figures, exam results day is an ordeal for all students.

Most receive their grades through the post or go into school or college to find out.

Those who fail can feel they are treated like faulty cogs in the exams system, rather than individuals with their own emotions.

Anne said: "Sometimes we don't deliver bad news well. Teachers have to be sensitive in handling this information.

"This is particularly the case if someone has done re-sits, when students can be made to feel they have failed twice."

Students' true feelings are often misread, covered by a show of defiance.

Anne said: "We all know that the face people present to the world isn't necessarily the way they feel inside.

"The outward 'I don't care' attitude can aggravate parents and teachers, who then criticise the student. But the student has been told they have failed and is trying to cope.

"We have to be sensitive to their feelings. They need support, not criticism."

Papyrus offers teachers, parents and students advice on overcoming suicidal tendencies.

They are urged to be emotionally responsive, supportive, considerate and non-judgemental.

Anne, whose son Lewis would have been in his 30s now, has dedicated her life to preventing other young people from doing the same as him.

She said: "If his death means that one other person resists suicide, then at least that is something."

Papyrus offers an advice helpline for anyone concerned that a young person they know may be at risk of suicide, on 0870 170 4000.

It is open from 1900BST to 2200BST Monday to Friday and 1400BST to 1700BST at weekends.


SEE ALSO
GCSE students 'are losing sleep'
04 May 06 |  Education
Exam stress 'makes pupils drink'
15 Aug 05 |  Beds/Bucks/Herts

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