Helping sixth formers facing pandemic challenges

Discover, a Maudsley Charity funded project, is helping sixth formers manage their anxiety and boost their motivation as they take part in a unique A-Level assessment following a challenging 15 months.

A leading NHS mental provider is helping sixth formers manage their anxiety and boost their motivation as they take part in a unique A-Level assessment following a challenging 15 months.

Psychologists from South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM) are continuing to deliver the DISCOVER programme of preventive mental health and wellbeing support they have provided to sixth formers for five years. Early intervention is proven to reduce mental health problems in adulthood.

More than 2,750 students have taken part in the DISCOVER workshops since 2016. They are currently being delivered in around 30 schools in London and the south east – although inevitably the programme has been re-shaped in response to the pandemic.

Research has shown that levels of anxiety, depression, self-esteem and wellbeing improve significantly for many young people who take part in the programme.

Dr Irene Sclare, consultant clinical psychologist at SLaM and DISCOVER programme lead, says: “Around half of the 250 young people we work with each year have significant mental health problems that have never been addressed. Most have never accessed mental health support, despite their needs, and many of their teachers were unaware of their emotional difficulties.”

Dr Sclare continues: “Over the last 15 months we’ve undoubtedly seen more young people with mental health problems. COVID and lockdown seem to have affected students in various ways that are worrying. Many report increased anxiety and fear and have become socially withdrawn. Some have lost motivation and hope for the future and have not accessed online teaching. They have missed their friends and lost their daily routines and structures. Some, of course, have even experienced family bereavements.”

Research-based on questionnaire responses completed during the first lockdown found that 83 percent of DISCOVER participants worried about their relatives’ physical health.

The study involved 107 students in six Lambeth schools who had recently undertaken the DISCOVER programme. Students from BAME backgrounds, who made up 72 percent of the sample, were more likely to worry about their financial situation (62 percent) compared with participants from White British or other White backgrounds (40 percent).

Some 87 percent reported using techniques learned at the DISCOVER workshop to cope with lockdown – including tips on avoiding procrastination and relaxation techniques.

The DISCOVER programme’s methods and content are based on cognitive behavioural therapy that has been adapted to meet a wide range of teenagers’ needs.

Students work with a psychologist to identify their key stresses and set personal goals before attending a day workshop around managing stress and worry led by psychologists. They receive follow-up texts and phone calls to support those goals. Three months later they again meet the psychologist to review their wellbeing and to motivate them to continue using the techniques. The students also get access to the DISCOVER app to remind them of the techniques that they learned and to boost their motivation.

Dr Sclare and her colleagues continued to work with students online during lockdown. This was difficult, she says, for young people whose families live in accommodation where privacy is difficult or who do not have good access to wifi.

Her team is now supporting students as they undergo a very different form of A-level assessment – while still facing significant restrictions and having lost teaching time.


Alice Casey, Director of Programmes with Maudsley Charity, said: “With analysis by NHS England predicting a 60% increase in demand for child and adolescent mental health services there has never been a more crucial time to support the mental health of children and young people.
“Maudsley Charity is committed to working with expert clinicians and service users to deliver projects that help people improve their mental health and well-being, this includes a commitment of £10m by the Charity to the Pears Maudsley Centre for Children and Young people based at the Maudsley Hospital.”

Jen Fleming, a senior teacher at the Norwood School in Lambeth, said: “Schools can be places of high stress and anxiety. It is natural that exam cycles and deadlines exert pressure on our students and we were very aware that our students needed to be supported through these important phases.

“We began working with the DISCOVER team five years and we were instantly grateful for their collaboration. Students have remarked that they manage their workloads using DISCOVER strategies and this has led to a sense of achievement for them. Accepting that we can navigate stressful events with awareness and specific activities has empowered all of us here at the Norwood School. Knowing we can refer to the DISCOVER team has helped too, especially through the last months of uncertainty due to the pandemic and the resulting increased workloads. Together, we have prioritised well-being for everyone.”

Many of those supported by the DISCOVER programme already face additional life stresses on top of the usual teenage challenges even before the pandemic struck – including trauma and bereavement, challenging home circumstances and social deprivation.

Notes to editors
1) For more information or to request an interview please contact Chris Mahony on 07812 692722.

2) South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust is a large and complex multi-site provider of mental health services – providing the widest range of NHS mental health services in the UK. We aim to make a difference to lives by seeking excellence in all areas of mental health and wellbeing. We also provide substance misuse services for people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Our 5,000 staff serve a local population of 1.3 million people. We offer more than 260 services including inpatient wards, outpatient and community service. We provide care for 41,000 patients in the community in Lambeth, Southwark, Lewisham and Croydon. As well as serving the communities of south London, we provide more than 20 specialist services for children and adults across the UK including perinatal services, eating disorders, psychosis and autism.

3) The Maudsley Charity works in partnership with South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London to promote positive change in the world of mental health. We support innovation, research and service improvement, working with patients and families, clinical care teams, researchers and community organisations with a common goal of improving mental health. We are able to support work such as Change the Story though use of our own historic charitable funds and through financial support from donors and foundations who share our ambitions.