BY: RAINA ZHAO
Type the words “school makes me” into Google, and the first search options offered are “sad,” “depressed” and “anxious.” For “school makes me feel,” they are “sick,” “dumb” and “stressed”. Even more troubling, typing “school makes me want” prompts “to commit suicide” and “to cut.” It is precisely for this reason that the way we approach mental health in schools, as well as the overall pressing high school environment, needs to change.
A 2013 study conducted by the American Psychological Association revealed that teens on average experience higher levels of stress than adults. With the amount of stress accepted as healthy being 3.9 (on a scale of ten), the average stress levels for teens reach 5.8, while for adults, the average is 5.1. This makes teens the most stressed generation in the country. In addition, 31% of teens said they felt overwhelmed, and 30% reported sadness or even depression as a result of stress.
Of course, teenagers hardly need statistics to tell them that they are stressed. Any high school student could tell you about the overwhelming pressure they feel, with the majority of it being school-related. University High School students are especially familiar with these pressures. After interviewing numerous UHS students, an overwhelming majority said that they felt stressed at the idea of going back to school. Almost every single respondent said they felt the pressure to succeed. This pressure most often comes from parents, but it can also stem from other sources. “I feel pressured by my peers,” says Jasmine Choi (so.), while Alexandra Dang (so.) says “I feel like I put most pressure on myself to do well.”
While the arguments of naysayers, asserting that stress is natural and preparatory for the future, have merit, there is something very wrong with the crushing pressure that is so prevalent in high school environments, including that of UHS. Although students should receive work and responsibilities, they should not feel anxious or depressed because of their obligations. As important as school is, teenage years should also be a time to enjoy oneself. Furthermore, stress has worrying implications for youth development. Stress has far-reaching effects on teenagers and can negatively impact them for years to come. According to the John Hopkins School of Education, prolonged stress can lead to significantly higher blood pressure and digestive problems. Stress can also interfere with academic performance and concentration during class.
The seriousness of student stress should demand a more active discussion regarding the importance of mental health in schools. Failing to detect the early warning signs of a mental illness–one of which, according to the Mayo Clinic, is a chronically stressful life situation–can be catastrophic to a student’s well-being. There are certainly ways to increase the presence of mental health care in school–especially since ignoring it is not an option. Howard S. Adelman, PhD and Linda Taylor, PhD recommend “interventions that assist youngsters and their support systems in preventing [mental health] problems and addressing those that can’t be avoided” and state that a “framework for mental health intervention must address risk factors, protective buffers, and the promotion of full development related to youngsters, families, schools, and communities.” The National Alliance on Mental Illness supports increased funding to establish mental health programs that bring trained professionals to public schools, and advocates training school faculty and staff to detect the early warning signs of mental illnesses.
However, it’s not just the services we offer to students that must improve. The stressful environment of high school needs to change. Students are constantly told to aim higher, to be better, to push themselves even harder. For high school students, the pressure to succeed is overwhelming. Among the UHS students interviewed, heavy workloads (in many cases, due to AP and Honors courses) and the competition amongst students were the chief causes of stress. Students feel they must always be adding another AP course or extracurricular activity to their already busy schedules in order to gain a competitive edge. “Junior year is really busy, and there are a lot of extracurriculars and AP’s. I just kind of want to get it over with at this point,” says Lucy Liu (Jr.).
The stress of high school students is a major problem, one that we should be paying much more attention to. Both the mental health services offered in public schools and the stressful environment need to change. After all, isn’t it time we told our students that they don’t have to be perfect–that instead of being the best, they can sufficiently prepare for the future by simply being the best version of themselves? Trust me–that version includes a happy, balanced mind.