The Real Results: GCSEs and Teen Mental Health

Brain Yapping by Dr Dean Burnett

Today is GCSE results day in the UK. Fifteen and sixteen year – olds all across the country will be finding out how well they’ve done in the exams they recently sat, the ones they spent two years studying for.

The overall standard of results will inevitably be splashed all over the media, no doubt accompanied by numerous opinion pieces and armchair analysis from columnists presenting themselves as an authority on the modern education system and the inner-workings of teenagers, despite being of an age where they’re closer to the grave than their own exams.

But in all the hubbub and noise surrounding the coverage of GCSE results day, there’s something that’s often, bafflingly, overlooked; the teens themselves. Specifically, their mental health, something which seems to be a big concern at other times.

The whole process of GCSEs and their subsequent results can have negative effects on teen mental health, for various reasons. This is something everyone could stand to be more aware of.

Whether you’re a font of knowledge or constantly drawing a blank, the exam process is still stressful for the teen brain


The exam process is stressful, and stress is bad for the brain

I’ve said this before; if sitting and staring at a screen for hours at a time is deemed to be dangerously taxing for the developing brain (wrongly)… why is sitting and staring at a teacher or a textbook meant to be beneficial? It’s just the delivery mechanism that’s different. You might argue that screens and devices are way more stimulating. But the fact that those on the autistic spectrum regularly prefer to engage via devices suggests they’re more ordered and controlled, so less stimulating, not more.

My point is, for all teens, doing their GCSEs is a new and stressful experience, even if they excel academically. It requires years of study, of absorbing abstract information, devoid of emotional context, which is something the brain finds more difficult, so more stressful.

Aside from being able to opt for specific subjects, GCSE students don’t get much say in what they have to do. They don’t choose the timetable, the material, the teacher, they don’t get to avoid exams. A lack of control in your own life? Another big source of stress for the brain. Particularly in situations with high-stakes, like, you know, doing crucial exams.

Another thing that causes stress? Uncertainty, like what you experience waiting weeks for the results of GCSEs.

However you feel it compares to adult experiences, there are so many facets of the GCSE process that can, and do, cause teens to experience stress. And stress is a big part of many problems with mental health. Particularly for teens, as their emotion-processing brain regions mature faster than the calm and rational brain areas, so they’re more prone to heightened emotions and anxiety as it is.

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Teens are often sleep-deprived.

The majority of teens don’t get enough sleep. Admittedly, almost every adult feels the same applies to them. But believe it or not, teens need it more.

In some ways, mid-teens are the worst time to make someone do important exams like GCSEs. One consequence of the hormonal and neurological upheaval they’re undergoing is both a disruption and extension of their sleep patterns.

In plain English, teens regularly need more sleep (an extra hour each night, possibly more), but at different times (typical teens may start feeling sleepy at 1am, as opposed to 10pm for adults). However, school and work start when they start. Ergo, the majority of teens don’t get enough sleep.

Insufficient sleep as a teen hampers your ability to control your moods, to stay focused and retain information, it saps your energy and motivation, and more. Logically, this would be the worst time to have to learn copious new info and be subjected to constant exam pressures. But that’s what happens.

Some schools in the US have experimented with later start times to allow students more sleep, and have reported encouraging results. But overall, most teens’ mental and cognitive processes are already under a lot of strain, and making them do GCSEs at the same time, while emphasising how vital they are, just piles on the pressure.

The fact that so many teens get through GCSEs at all should be considered a grand achievement, whatever the results are.

Teens are often told they should listen to adults. This would be easier if adults could keep their story straight for more than five minutes at a time.


Teenagers are given so many mixed messages

Uncertainty is stressful, and the adult world fills many a teenager’s life with constant uncertainty, often without realising.

At fourteen or fifteen years old, you’re deemed not mature or responsible enough to drink, drive, vote, be paid normal minimum wage, and so on. And yet you can (and must) choose and complete GCSEs, determined by your long-term plan or career goal, which defines the rest of your life. But can you be trusted with a beer? Hell no. It’s somewhat inconsistent.

And when it comes to GCSEs, it doesn’t stop there. Teens are told GCSEs are the most important exams you could imagine, but once they’re done? It turns out they were just a step along the way, and the real challenge comes next. And while teens are regularly told GCSEs are vitally important, once the results are out you can’t move for adults saying things like “Your results don’t matter, I never got an GCSEs, and look at me now”. Overall, your basic teen gets copious mixed messages about their GCSE results. This is hardly helpful for reducing stress, for maintaining good mental health.

Dear politicians. Teens aren’t this. Why not try making your own life needlessly more difficult in order to scrape a few more votes next time?


Teens aren’t political footballs

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of GCSE results is how quickly the massed achievement of relevant-age students nationwide quickly becomes just a soundbite for any politician hoping to score ideological points. I remember my own GCSE results day, where the combined prolonged efforts of all of my peers across the country resulted in record pass marks, only for this to be roundly dismissed as soon as you turned on the news, to see some political-windbag-of-the-day spouting off about how “exams are clearly too easy!”

Things are hardly any better now, with types like Gove messing with the whole education system to prove some ideological point (and failing), all to appeal to the views of older voters who left school in a totally different era, and never had to sit GCSEs, and never will.

Another thing the brain is very sensitive to? The connection between effort and reward. And if teens spend years studying for exams, at the instruction of the adult authorities, only to have it spat back in their face and be treated like some sort of poorly-yielding wheat crop when they actually succeed, what lessons are they going to take from that? Don’t listen to those in power? Hard work is pointless? It’s likely to be something that’s detrimental to their wellbeing in the long term, in any case.

So many opinionated adults complain about teens lacking in respect and consideration for their elders. But respect is a two-way street, and it seems teens seldom get any respect or consideration from the older generations. This despite all the hoops teens have to jump through at the behest of older adults, and invariably get criticised for anyway, even when they succeed.

Perhaps we could start treating GCSE results as an achievement of teen students regardless of the numbers, and not as a hurdle they must clear, or a stick to beat them with. Maybe then teens would have improved wellbeing overall? That could be a lot better for all of us, in the long term.   

Dean Burnett’s new book Why Your Parents Are Driving You Up The Wall And What To Do About It, a neuroscience-inspired guide for 11-16 year olds about how to handle stubborn parents (and other adults) is out today (August 22nd).

There will be a launch event at the Royal Institution on August 27th, featuring Stephanie Merritt, and brought to you by The Cosmic Shambles Network. There are still a handful of tickets here.

Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist, author and stand up comedian. He is the author of the international best -sellers The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for  the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education. His latest book, Why Your Parents Are Driving You Up The Wall is out now. He is @garwboy on Twitter.

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