Portugal: One in three schoolchildren shows signs of psychological distress – study

About a third of Portuguese schoolchildren have signs of psychological distress and deficits in social and emotional skills, a problem that worsens with advancing schooling and affects more girls, concluded a study released on Tuesday.

The study “School Observatory: Monitoring and Action | Psychological Health and Well-being” was carried out this year among 8,067 children and adolescents attending Portuguese schools, from nursery school to year 12.

I think that in a while, apart from a minority of pupils, they’ll have recovered”, said Margarida Gaspar de Matos, coordinator of the study, from the “Aventura Social” team at Lisbon University.

According to the researchers, mental health problems worsen as pupils grow up, until they reach 12th grade, when more problems are reported.

Throughout the school career, two exceptions appear – 2nd year children and 8th year youngsters, who also appear particularly vulnerable.

Pupils in Year 5 appear to be the most satisfied with life and with the fewest symptoms of psychological distress: they are the most optimistic, confident, with higher levels of sociability, creativity, energy and less anxiety about tests.

This is the first time the education ministry has called for a national study on the psychological health and well-being of the school community which, according to minister João Costa, will now be carried out periodically. 

“It is a response to scientific evidence that tells us that well-being correlates very positively with pupils’ academic performance and, therefore, we cannot leave this out of school activity,” explained João Costa.

In the study released today, the researchers sought to identify emotional symptoms, behavioural problems, hyperactivity, problems related to colleagues, but also prosocial behaviour among pre-school and children in years 1-5.

After the surveys carried out with the help of teachers and educators, they concluded that about a quarter of children are restless (23.2%) and are easily distracted (24.9%), but 88.6% say they have at least one good friend.

Among older pupils, more than a quarter said they feel sad (25.8%), irritable or moody (31.8%) and nervous (37.4%) several times a week or almost every day. 

Although the majority reported that they rarely or never feel so sad that they cannot stand it (67.1%), almost a third admitted feeling this sadness at least monthly (32.9%).

On the quality of life perception scale, seven out of ten students (71.4%) said they felt calm and peaceful at least half the time, but almost half (42.7%) admitted to being very tense at test time. 

In a gender comparison, boys were shown to have a better perception of well-being, life satisfaction and fewer symptoms of psychological distress. They are more optimistic, have greater emotional control, confidence and sociability, but also suffer more test anxiety and are more often bullied. 

The researchers therefore argued that girls need “redoubled attention as they progress through schooling”.

The study came in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, precisely to understand the effect on the school community, concluding that one in three pupils thought life at school had worsened, a fifth thought life with friends had also got worse and 28.4 per cent said life with themselves had worsened. Family life remained unchanged for the majority (56.7%).

For Margarida Gaspar de Matos, the results are not dramatic: “This is not a national catastrophe, it’s just a period of national vulnerability”, defended the coordinator of the study, carried out in partnership by the general directorate for education and science statistics (DGEEC), the general directorate for education (DGE), the national programme for the promotion of school success (PNPSE), and with the collaboration of the Order of Portuguese Psychologists (OPP) and Lisbon’s Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. 

The study also found differences by region: among the youngest, more problems were identified in schools in the Douro and Tâmega e Sousa regions in terms of emotional symptoms, behavioural problems and problems relating to relationships with peers.

Among the older pupils, those from schools in the Alentejo appear to be the most satisfied with life, as opposed to those from the Algarve who feel the worst, with less confidence, sociability and a lower rate of positive relationships with teachers. 

Pupils from the Alentejo are those with the most positive outlook and those who suffer least from tests, as opposed to pupils from the Algarve and the North who feel more pressure as the tests approach.