In 2001, the Kerry Mental Health Association (KMHA) conducted a quantitative, questionnaire-based study among 1422 leaving certificate students in County Kerry to determine their levels of perceived stress and their methods of coping with stress. In 2003 a similar study was conducted among 992 first year students. Copies of these studies may be found on the KMHA website: www.kerrymentalhealth.com
The results of the studies were disturbing. Stressful situations were identified and it was determined how well students coped with them. 4.4% felt they were unable to cope at all and a further 14% had significant difficulty coping. .Methods of coping were of three types, positive-active, passive-negative and confused-destructive. By and large, those who were coping well used the positive-active approaches such as practical thinking and confiding in others; those who felt they could not cope used the confused-destructive techniques such as alcohol and other drug use, blaming others and screaming. Those who were coping, though not well, used the passive-negative techniques like keeping things to themselves, wishing things away and thinking nothing can be done about the problem.
In this context it was decided to conduct a further study of stress and coping among all levels of secondary school students in Kerry. It was further decided that the type of study be qualitative, to determine, in their own words, what young people found stressful and how they coped with stress. A particular aspect of this study would be an evaluation of the young people's knowledge of, and assessment of, the many agencies listed in the KMHA directory that seek to offer help to those who need it. They were further asked what changes they would recommend in present facilities or what new facilities they would like to see put in place.
The Department of Business in the Institute of Technology, Tralee was approached and agreed that five students, as part of their marketing course, should undertake the study. These selected four schools as part of a purposive sample representing the different types of school in Kerry. Nine groups were selected in these schools, representing all age groups. The method of study used was the focus group and great care was taken in preparing for the occasion and in conducting the sessions where participants were put at ease yet encouraged to participate meaningfully. (The full report, which runs to 204 pages, is available from the KMHA.
The principal techniques used in the focus groups were word association, role-play, sentence completion, general questions and specific questions to determine awareness of facilities and willingness to use them. The study and its findings are summed up in the abstract presented with the report:
As part of our marketing research module we were assigned a marketing research project to complete. Our topic was "An Investigation of Stress Coping Techniques Used and Suggested by Second-level Students". Our client, Dan O'Connor is a Development Manager with the Kerry Mental Health Association. Before meeting our client we carried out background information on stress and also on the KMHA and its functions.
Our research was aimed at determining why existing services for coping with stress were not being used to a greater extent and what techniques the young people of today are using to combat stress be they of a positive or of a negative nature.
On meeting with Dan O'Connor, we determined that the objectives of our project fell into three main categories:
1. Are students aware of facilities that are available to them? If they are,
2. Why are they not availing of them to a greater extent? and
3. What methods of combating stress are they using?
To achieve these objectives, the group used qualitative research techniques in the form of focus groups. Nine focus groups were conducted across all age groups in four schools located in urban and rural areas of the county.
The main findings are:
· Why are they not availing of the services listed in the directory?
Students stated that they did not like confiding in strangers working in these organizations, and that trust levels were a major factor, especially the fear they would contact parents.
· What are they doing instead?
Keeping it to themselves was the answer to this question that was repeated time and time again. In relation to bullying and pregnancy the suggestion was made that they would turn to a friend and family members.
· What are students suggesting?
Students put forward suggestions of student's council, group therapy, parents' Workshops and changing the image of the services and facilities.
Students are uncomfortable with the notion of mental health. Overall it was concluded that there is a negative attitude towards mental health and to bringing mental health issues to the attention of professionals. Students are embarrassed and feel their problems are not big enough to merit professional attention. Students feel their problems will be talked about by school staff. They feel that the services offered are not marketed to them and they do not like the idea of speaking to what they see as strangers about personal problems, preferring to speak to friends and parents.
No effort is made to quantify the percentages who responded in the different ways. Further, one must interpret the responses of young people who have an opportunity to speak freely about their circumstances in school and without. What we hear is a genuine statement of the students' feelings; the truth of the situation they perceive may be somewhat different.
Summary of findings and recommendations:
The principal theme to emerge from the study was lack of trust of authorities of all kinds, school or agency. No judgment is made on how well based is this feeling; it remains the single greatest impediment to the young person's making use of teacher, counselor, administration or outside agency. What emerges is that some - those who can cope - can confide in a sibling, parent, relative (aunt was mentioned several times, particularly in the case of pregnancy) or friend. Those unable to cope seem to be those who feel they cannot trust anyone. There is room for thought and further study here!
Awareness of agencies: The KMHA has published a list of agencies that offer help to young people. Participants in the focus groups were asked if they were aware of the agency and of its mission. Some agencies were well known, some little known, one not at all. This is the list in order of awareness:
2. Positive Options - Crisis Pregnancy
3. The KDYS Youth Information Centre
5. The Kerry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre
6. The Kerry Adolescent Counseling Service
7. Mental Health Ireland
8. Kerry Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service
9. South West Counseling Service
In general, awareness meant just that - they knew of the agency, they were less sure of its function.
The study made twelve recommendations, summarized as follows:
1 Awareness: There is a need to make young people more aware of the support agencies and their functions.
2. Positioning of Services: The several agencies should make more effort to identify their function and, above all, to make it clear they serve the teen sector. This applies particularly to Childline who are seen as serving a younger age group and to the Samaritans who are seen as serving the needs of older persons.
3. Counsellors: Confidentiality and privacy must be emphasised. Younger independent counsellors might be considered.
4. Group Therapy: Arising from their experience in the focus groups, participants were much in favour of this medium of communication and sharing.
5. Attitude to Mental Health: This was found to be a major obstacle as young people are uncomfortable with the concept and tend to deal with
it flippantly. Lectures and modules might be instituted as part of the school programme.
6. Access to facilities within schools: Unsupervised access to gyms, prayer rooms and other such is not allowed. Participants feel that such access would be of great help in helping them unwind. This might be looked at.
7. Equality and Respect: Despite its listing at number 7, this was a recurring theme in discussions. Students do not feel they are treated with respect or as equal as persons. Consideration might be given to this issue.
8. Student Councils: With representatives from each year, they might deal with a host of problem issues as advocates for those who are experiencing difficulty especially in student - teacher relationships.
9. Drop-in Centre: Echoes recommendation 6.
10. Weekly Discos
11. Workshops for Parents: Held twice yearly to help parents understand the stresses their children are suffering in the various stages of their development
12. Pamphlets for Parents: To increase awareness of stress as in number 11.
Finallly, we may conclude with the researchers' own words:
We hope to have taught the students we met and spoke with that there are people and organisations out there to help them. However, the fact remains that they have taught us a great deal. They have opened our eyes to problems that are out there. They have shown us how they have the strength to carry out their day to day duties of going to school and concentrating on their studies whilst behind it all, a lot of these young people are experiencing stress. They have shown us the strength they have at such a young age. We hope that this project has an impact on their lives, even a small impact, as it has made an important impact on our lives.