Saturday 20 July 2019

Obsession with the points race raises risk of suicide in young people

You're made to feel like a failure if you don't attend college, says leading child psychiatrist

Dr David McNamara: said a school had a ‘doomsday clock’. Photo: Arthur Carron
Dr David McNamara: said a school had a ‘doomsday clock’. Photo: Arthur Carron

Allison Bray

An obsession with getting the highest points possible is putting huge pressure on the mental health of our children, a leading child psychiatrist has warned.

Dr David McNamara warned of the disturbing link between exam stress and young people's mental health problems - up to and including suicide.

The head of the Adolescent Inpatient Unit at St John of God Hospital warned: "Between Christmas and June, I'm absolutely swamped with outpatient referrals by GPs. It's mostly to help them get through the exams."

Leaving Cert students are heaping enormous pressure on themselves to get into college at all costs, Dr McNamara told the Irish Independent.

"Back in my day, there was only a small percentage of students who went on to college. But today, there's great pressure for all students to attend college," he said.

"You are made to feel like a failure if you don't attend college."

The pressure starts to build about three years before the Leaving Cert exams from mostly the students themselves, but also from parents, peers and teachers, he said.

One school in the Dublin area even had a so-called 'doomsday clock', he said.

This counted down the days until the annual exams in June, which Dr McNamara insisted on having removed.

The pressure manifests itself in the classic symptoms of anxiety and stress; insomnia, panic attacks, poor concentration, abuse of alcohol or drugs, depression and even suicidal thoughts or attempts.

"They can't sleep. They're worried sick and feeling sad and low in mood," he said.

The result was that many post-secondary students were seeking psychiatric help to deal with the stress, he said.

Ireland's youth suicide rate is the highest in Europe and the leading cause of death of young people here.

In one tragic case, 15-year-old Manik Murphy was killed by a train in September 2007 an hour after getting her Junior Cert results, which didn't live up to the high standards she had set for herself, her inquest heard.


The schoolgirl from Donabate, north county Dublin, who wanted to be a veterinarian, left a note. It said: "No one will understand why I did this. I'm not good enough to stay on this Earth" - after she had got 4 As and 6 Bs, instead of the 6 As and 4 Bs that she wanted.

Dublin County Coroner Dr Kieran Geraghty said: "It's quite clear that she was an intelligent and caring young girl, who, for some reason, came to believe her life depended on her results.

"She first believed that the world would end when she was 15 and then came to believe her world would end."

Linda O'Shea, spokeswoman for the National Parents Council Post Primary, said she too had seen a similar trend develop over the past decade.

She warned that students today were suffering from stress that far exceeded the normal stress levels associated with sitting exams previously.

"We are aware of students who have committed suicide due to sheer exam stress," she said.

Ms O'Shea cautioned parents against putting too much pressure on their children to excel and said that they should encourage their children to switch off occasionally.

"Remove them from that situation where the books are open 24/7," she said. "That's not good for anyone."

Dr McNamara agreed. He said students literally needed to give themselves a break occasionally and get out and exercise, get a good night's sleep and eat properly.

"The best way to reduce stress is adequate preparation," he added.

Irish Independent

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