Friday’s York Union event saw the return of York alumni, Professor Tanya Byron, to the University to talk about the increasing pressure to succeed on today’s students. Having written columns for The Times and Good Housekeeping magazine, as well as the BBC series House of Tiny Tearaways, the clinical psychologist and popular media personality was sure to draw a crowd.
Suicides amongst the student population are increasing, as are the numbers of children suffering from eating disorders, depression and anxiety. With both the government and the media finally beginning to address mental health more widely in the UK, this event provided an exciting opportunity to hear an expert’s opinion on why it is becoming such a big problem among students.
From the very beginning, Byron set out to use herself as an example of how wrong the education system can be in assessing mental ability. Having boasted about her career successes, which included a kiss from Barack Obama, she was quick to remind the audience that she had hated school, almost been expelled and never expected to be a “high flier” by her peers. Following this was an account of her 18-year-old daughter’s struggle to meet the entry requirements of university, Byron highlighted the fact that not only can it be demeaning and unrewarding, but there is an ever-increasing pressure for young people to succeed in today’s society.
It is this pressure or, more importantly, the fear of failure, which she believes is one of the main causes of mental health problems in students. She claimed “children and young people are raised in captivity” and that our risk adverse society is putting a developmental restraint on children, championing their IQs but at the expense of their emotional intelligence (EQ). Without such emotional resilience, many adolescents are unable to control the anxiety, experienced in new and challenging situations, which leads to stress.
Stemming from the idea that mental health problems are on the increase in adolescents from “aspirational families”, Byron continued with a humorous and fascinating whistle-stop tour of the psychological world. She expertly made use of audience participation and her own knowledge and experience to match the scientific understanding with the audience’s level and illustrate the underlying psychology behind mental health.
Although her light-hearted, comic approach to such a serious matter may have rifled a few of the audience members, the majority of the audience appeared to be fully engaged and entertained by Byron’s speech. Having argued that students will only learn to control anxiety through the experience of failure, she ended on an empowering note, encouraging students to “buck the trend, take risks” and challenge ourselves in order to increase emotional resilience.