The vital link between careers guidance and mental health

By Suzy Bashford

Receiving effective careers guidance at school enhances young people’s current and future wellbeing.

Careers leaders have the potential to play a hugely powerful and positive role in enhancing the mental health and wellbeing of young people, both now and in the future. For many working with children in a career-guidance capacity this link is intuitive, but it has been explored and confirmed in new research by Dr Peter Robertson, associate professor at Edinburgh Napier University

When young people seek careers advice, it’s “fairly routine” that they are “feeling down and anxious”, says Robertson: “Careers guidance is about the future and that’s what anxiety is about so, inevitably, careers advisers are going to see people who are experiencing some discomfort.”

This discomfort is not just about figuring out what they want to do with their lives, but also stems, more generally, from the transition to adulthood. Young people’s brains are typically going through significant developmental changes during their teenage years. For these reasons, effective career guidance can deliver some of the benefits of counselling in boosting mental health.

You’re sitting down with someone, taking an interest and trying to help them solve problems and imagine a future which is better than the present

Promoting positive wellbeing

“It’s not symptom-focused and it’s not meant to be therapy, but some things that are a natural part of careers guidance are also part of promoting positive wellbeing,” explains Robertson.

“You’re sitting down with someone, taking an interest and trying to help them solve problems and imagine a future which is better than the present. You’re injecting a bit of optimism and getting people to look at their strengths, rather than mulling over the negatives.”

The act of coming up with a plan, with clear goals, helps to combat a sense of powerless and gives young people a feeling of control and agency in their lives. As well as these short-term benefits, the process itself can be beneficial in the long term because it gives young people a way to role model future career transitions and to build up resilience to change.

Robertson stresses the significance securing a “positive destination” has on young people in the crucial months after they leave school and, potentially, later in life. “Brains are shaped by experiences as teenagers,” he says. “There is evidence that if you’re unemployed for six months as a teenager then there are some really long-term impacts both on earning potential but also on health. If you feel ‘nobody wants me’ that can become crystallised in your brain.”

This could explain why people who are NEET (not in employment, education or training) are particularly vulnerable to mental health problems.

Another valuable action careers leaders can take, which will help young people prepare for the rapidly changing world of work, is to emphasise that decisions made now are not set in stone; it’s quite alright – indeed, a strength nowadays – to experience different sectors and develop skills in different areas. Life is not as linear (think ‘job for life’) as it once was.

Exploring mini-careers

Jennie Cole, careers leader at Hailsham Community College Academy Trust in East Sussex, reports that the majority of students knocking on her door do so because they don’t know what to do next. “I always say ‘I’m not here to tell you what you’re going to do, my job is to help you explore the things that might interest you’,” she says.

“I reassure them that, even if they chose to be a bricklayer at 16 for four years, they could absolutely change their mind and move into another role after this. I always reinforce that the prediction now is that students will have anything up to 12 different jobs in their working life.”

De Montfort University’s Mark Prescod, careers consultant and senior lecturer, applauds this approach, reiterating that coping with frequent career changes is key to success in the 21st century. He agrees that most young people will have a series of “mini careers” and different jobs rather than one long career.

“Receiving good careers advice early on will help students prepare for this understanding that they won’t be in the same job, but that they will need to think differently; that their value is not in the job they have but the skills they have. It will help build resilience,” he says.

To fortify this resilience, he suggests careers leaders encourage students to build a ‘brag file’ where they record times when they are praised for their work or for doing well in sports, events, conversations or volunteering.

Particularly with those who don’t feel strong academically, career leaders can boost their students’ self-esteem by stressing the many sought-after, transferable skills that can be learned inside and outside of school, but aren’t related to grades.

They can also explain that, today, networking and getting out into the world making connections with people, is key to recruitment. For these reasons, Cole encourages young people to volunteer, get a part-time job and spend a day with their family members or friends at work.

“The biggest challenge is that young people don’t know what they don’t know,” she points out. “They’ve just been in a classroom. How are they supposed to know what is out there in the world of work? I try and get them to have as many employee encounters as possible. Schools are very pressed, but giving students half a day to visit somebody in a workspace can change perspectives and impact positively on both their decision making and mental health.”

Helen Pullan, founder of Safe Opportunities, wholeheartedly agrees. Her service works with young people in crisis, often disengaged from school, giving them an experience of work can lift self-esteem. Often students come to her initially with their heads hanging down, not looking at her in the eye and barely able to have a conversation.

“But good work experiences can definitely boost their mental health,” she says. “After a few successful weeks in work they report back and tell me they can do the job well. They look me in the eye. They can feel proud and start to really engage with me. So, while their experience of the school system might have been negative, their work experience can be positive.”

Injecting a dose of realism

Recruitment consultants echo the need to emphasise the breadth of careers and changeability of the jobs market. However, Vicki Richardson, recruitment manager at Theo James Recruitment, also suggests underlining the many ways to get to a final career ‘destination’ too.

“It’s equally important to highlight the various pathways that are now available to young adults,” she says. “These days, you don’t have to have a university degree to be successful, there is a range of courses, job-shadowing schemes and apprenticeships that could be perfect for the individual.”

She also offers up some advice, which she believes, if not heeded, can negatively impact mental health. “Be careful not to build up students’ hopes, only for them to be dashed, potentially. It can be tough to get a foot on the career ladder with little or no experience, so it’s best to be honest about what they should expect when job hunting,” she says.

“Warn them that they may have to apply for a veritable number of roles. Explain that it will take dedication and a strong will to get where they want to be, but if they keep their goal in sight and stay focused, it will be worth it in the end.”

It’s unhelpful, too, to perpetuate the ‘X-Factor myth’ that a young person can be anything they want to be as – clearly – this isn’t the case. Not all budding young footballers are going to play for Manchester City.

However, rather than dismissing this dream out of hand, career leaders can encourage young people to think laterally around a job. For instance, an interest in football could also be channelled into sports journalism, coaching or even physiotherapy. “The focus always needs to be on what they enjoy doing and exploring opportunities around that,” says Cole.

A subject that has become very trendy and adorns the covers of many self-help careers books is the idea that if you find your ‘passion’ then the money will inevitably follow. While it’s undoubtedly valuable to explore a young person’s interests, Ros Toynbee, director at The Career Coach, believes this over-emphasis on finding your passion can be extremely damaging.

“The problem is that lots of people don’t have a passion. They’ll feel they are ‘wrong’ in some way, because they don’t have one. And shame is the most insidious emotion. I’d just say ‘try to find something you’re interested in, be curious and go deeper into that topic’. You might find, over time, you like the challenge in it.”

The focus always needs to be on what they enjoy doing and exploring opportunities around that

Defining personal success

Toynbee believes there are many similarities between career coaching adults and young people. For example, the need to reassure participants that it’s ok to fail because that’s how you learn, to feel anxious (because that’s normal), and to reach out for support because that’s not a weakness but a strength.

Most importantly, though, young people need to define success for themselves, rather than modelling it on other people’s ambitions. Toynbee warns that many clients come to her in later life suffering from anxiety and depression because they haven’t done this.

However, encouraging young people to define their own goals can be particularly challenging for career leaders where parents have fixed ideas about what they do or don’t want from for their child’s future, and the skills they need to get there.

Pullan has encountered this situation. “We’ll have parents saying to their children, ‘I want you to do this’ and it’s often about their own image and expectations,” she says. For example, if she is advising a child who excels at coding, but may need to develop softer communications skills in order to thrive in the workplace, she may suggest they do some work experience in a shop.

“We know that softer skills give young people a wider opportunity for paid employment, but parents don’t always get this – they don’t necessarily see the value in working in a shop,” she explains. In these cases, careers leaders need to tread carefully, engaging parents in the conversations around careers and gently challenging their views, putting the focus on the child, whenever possible.

“We give the young people choices,” says Pullan. “We say ‘this is what your mum and dad are thinking, but remember there are these options as well’. Sometimes I’ll get Family Support involved too.”

Providing timely support

Safe Opportunities tends to see young people who are already in crisis, but Pullan believes that mental health problems could often be nipped in the bud where people are referred at a younger age.

Fazakerley High School, located in an area of high disadvantage in Liverpool, has recently implemented the Blues Programme, a “blues- busting course” developed by charity Action for Children for teenagers aged 13-19. This aims to reduce the signs of adolescent low mood and negative thoughts and promote prevention, targeting young people as early as possible.

When she heard about the initiative, careers leader Julie Jones “jumped on” the opportunity to contribute, with early careers guidance and employer mentoring interventions.

So far, the school has identified two cohorts for its programme, the majority of whom are female. These individuals have esteem and confidence issues, some stemming from social media and the fact that they rarely socialise with peers in person (or rarely leave their bedrooms, in certain cases).

“When you talk about leaving school, this feels horrific, they can’t deal with it,” says Jones. Consequently, she is focusing on finding mentors and scheduling early careers interviews for students, which will be followed up regularly.

“Careers guidance can add so much to the mental health agenda, building on young people’s self-esteem and getting them ready for the world,” she says. “We can improve pupils’ confidence, work on their softer skills and make them feel more in control and instil more self- belief. Just telling a young person that ‘their best is good enough’ can sometimes help them breathe a sigh of relief.”

Training for careers leaders

It is for this reason that Jan Ellis, CEO of the Career Development Institute, is campaigning for the introduction of careers advice intervention in primary schools.

However, the major challenge she notes is the current lack of training and support for careers leaders performing this crucial work around identifying and dealing with mental health problems.

“For example, when I was a careers adviser, I had to interview a young person with elective mutism,” she recalls. “No one prepared me for that. We ought to do much more to support practitioners.

“After all, it’s an absolute no-brainer that more careers guidance for students, at a younger age, could mean fewer mental health problems in children,” she continues.

“I would love someone reading this article to come to me and say, ‘we can help training people to do this’. So get in touch if that’s you!”

According to Edinburgh Napier University’s research, effective careers guidance for young people:

  • has features likely to promote wellbeing, including recognising strengths, a focus
  • on the future, setting achievable goals, and building a social identity through work
  • resembles counselling in terms of providing one-to-one attention and a safe space for young people to share their concerns. It may offer some of the short-term wellbeing benefits of personal counselling
  • supports access to decent work and education or training that provides a source of income, social contact, purposeful activity and healthy challenges
  • can make it more likely that work is rewarding, consistent with an individual’s needs and values, and therefore more sustainable
  • can be embedded in programmes to support unemployed young people, and is likely to complement psycho-educational interventions to promote resilience
  • can result in at-risk young people being referred to public mental health interventions

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