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OPINION: The Stress Epidemic

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The bell rings. Students flood out of their classrooms, backpacks weighed down by papers, and teachers call out last-minute instructions. Walking into their next class, a student drops their textbooks on their desk and says, “I’m seriously going to kill myself.”

It’s a scene we’re all too familiar with. Words like, “I want to die,” “I’m so stressed,” and “I hate everything,” hang in our hallways, so overused they become distorted into lighthearted humor, natural conversation, and eventually, a culture.

Westwood’s stress culture isn’t just a part of growing up or an unfortunate side effect to incredible academic success; it’s a dangerous epidemic. Individual students walk the halls accustomed to sleep deprivation and anxiety, thinking their cases are unique and they are alone. When they try to express these concerns, they are told they are overreacting, that current sacrifice is okay for later success, that the storm will pass. They begin to see their condition as normal.

Numbers

But the collective numbers tell a different story. In an anonymous student survey with over 500 responses conducted by Westwood Student Press through email, the negative impacts of Westwood’s academic environment are indisputable.

  • 90% of surveyed students said they had experienced loss of sleep due to schoolwork.
  • 72% said they had experienced anxiety for the same reason.
  • 71% reported suffering physical symptoms such as headaches or fatigue.
  • 58% encountered intense mood swings.
  • 58% experienced loss of appetite.
  • 44% faced stress-related panic attacks.
  • An unbelievable 49% said they struggled with depression.

For every category, close to half or a solid majority had grappled with the stated experience. When half of a student population suffers from depression and three-quarters from anxiety, action must be taken on an administrative level. These are not minor, personal problems.

When half of a student population suffers from depression and three-quarters from anxiety, action must be taken on an administrative level. These are not minor, personal problems.”

Nor are these problems exclusive to a certain academic demographic. Of the students who responded, 59 percent were enrolled in mostly AP/Pre-AP classes, 21 percent in mostly On-Level, and 20 percent in mostly IB/Pre-IB. The expressed symptoms of stress affected students across all levels, revealing an issue that needs to solved school-wide.

When asked to name the cause of their stress, 87 percent of students cited their amount of schoolwork. 83 percent cited grades, and 64 percent cited pressures related to future plans, such as college or career life. Many also felt increased stress due to rigorous extracurriculars and their home environments.

Perhaps growing up means learning to balance these factors, and taking greater responsibility for our own lives. But growing up does not have to mean an inability to enjoy learning, a constant dread at the thought of school and the future, or a community culture that negatively impacts the lives and mental health of the students. If both the student body and Westwood faculty could devote time and effort into decreasing the academic pressures and competitive environment, a positive change is possible.

Voices

The statistics showcase a large-scale problem that is taking over the student population. Yet what the numbers cannot show are the individual struggles and difficulties Westwood students are facing daily. Surveyed students were invited to describe their personal experiences in a comment field on how stress affected them outside of school.

One student wrote, “Thoughts of suicide, serious depression, and feelings of loneliness. Westwood has negatively affected my life. Through the stress and rigor Westwood has put me through, I had to go through times of strained relationships between my mother, at times where I have considered killing myself to relieve the pain and suffering I endured everyday. Westwood teachers need to understand that the stress they put on students is unhealthy.”

Another wrote, “I am losing sleep and time to spend with friends and family. Even missing one day of school requires several all-nighters to make up quizzes, tests, and projects. I have mostly learned to juggle my schedule, but sometimes, when several teachers have tests all within the same week, I feel very tired from studying late at night. Outside of school, I can’t remember off the top of my head the last time I was able to go out with friends such as watching a movie. Mostly, I’ve been stuck at my desk, frantically finishing my academics to not fall behind and have make up work.” 

Outside of school, I can’t remember off the top of my head the last time I was able to go out with friends such as watching a movie. ”

— Anonymous student

Many others expressed frustration at not being able to pursue their passions to the level they wanted to.

“It’s hard to focus on fun activities with school always looming over your shoulder,” one student wrote.

Another frequently cited concern was the breaking down of relationships with friends and family.

“Outside of school I’m not able to spend as much time with my family as I would like because I am studying and doing homework. My stress ends up affecting my little brother because he can’t really understand why I’m stressed and can’t watch a movie with him or why I can’t play,” another anonymous student wrote.

Overall, students noticed that concerns about school overtook large parts of their daily lives in often unhealthy amounts.

“School definitely affects you mentally and psychologically because you’re constantly thinking about school and getting good grades and you want to balance anything,” Anjali Suresh ‘20 said. “This addition of homework and tests and GPA just really hurts you psychologically and there are times when I’m constantly thinking about it, like I can’t sleep because I’m thinking about it.”

Alexis Lemus ‘18, a prospective Music Education major, said Westwood’s competitive environment often made her passion seem less validated.

“I think school has made us think that if you’re not successful in a very conventional way you’re not going to allowed to be successful outside of the building you’re educated in,” Lemus said. “Education is really important and all of us do well in high school and go to college, but I think a lot of times unless you’re striving for that ‘Top Ten’, you’re thinking about it when you’re at home, like, “Am I going to be able to do the thing I love as my career? Am I going to be able to live comfortably?” and you don’t know, because school is so overwhelming.”

Contrary to the majority opinion in the survey, Arjun Jain ‘18 felt that stress caused by school was manageable, despite being enrolled in the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme — one of the most rigorous academic programs offered.

“I maintain low levels of stress through time management,” Jain said. “I think a lot of stress is group stress, like we make other people stressed out by complaining about our own work. Stuff like group studies and complaining about work on social media makes it worse.”

Whether it be addressing personal choices or systematic adjustments, student voices were able to share their individual experiences and hopes for change.

Next Steps

It is evident that the collective mental health of our student body is a glaring problem. In fact, the concerns that the surveyed students cited convey that student stress is perhaps the biggest problem that faces Westwood today. Positive steps are being taken, with rank-in-class being removed for those not in the top ten percent. Administration and faculty are beginning to understand a bit of the Westwood student experience and the burden it brings. 

It is evident that the collective mental health of our student body is a glaring problem.”

But the road hasn’t ended. A multitude of seemingly insignificant burdens build up to cause the effects of stress we have seen. Addressing these issues at both the school-wide and classroom level is crucial.

“I’m not going to ask for a decrease in tests or homework but it’d be nice if the teachers could coordinate them,” Suresh said. “Last week I had three consecutive tests in all core classes and I slept at 5 a.m. and woke up at 7 a.m..”

Lemus asked for more recognition that students do not need to succeed beyond expectations in all areas.

“I think that right now there’s a division between kids in AP/IB and On-Level,” Lemus said. “What I would love to see as Westwood grows and continues to be a successful as it is right now, is that somehow there’s a way to bridge that gap. We need to tell everyone it’s okay to be where you are.”

Jain said stress could be ameliorated by individual action, and encouraged a different approach to schoolwork.

“Different students work in different ways and not everybody is going to be stress-free,” Jain said, “but I definitely think that it’s possible to for everyone across the school to decrease stress. I think that doesn’t need to come from teachers changing but rather just the way that students approach their work. It’s very easy to procrastinate and develop those habits, but it’s possible to change them.”

All these are possible issues to be addressed in the future. But the most important next step is discussion. Stress at Westwood must be seen as a large, grave issue that needs to be solved, and dialogue between those affected should be encouraged. Only if the collective student body and faculty recognize the severity of the situation will we be able to bring about positive change for good.

1 Comment

One Response to “OPINION: The Stress Epidemic”

  1. Theresa Proctor on November 12th, 2017 3:26 pm

    Well-written piece. Excellent data. So sad our students can’t just be carefree and enjoy their time in high school.

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