Editor note: Student names have been changed to protect privacy. Pseudonyms have been noted with an asterisk. This piece represents the views and opinions of the writer, not necessarily those of The New Edu or The Kentucky Student Voice Team.
I like to think of final exams as a cycle. From the moment I entered high school, I knew there was no escaping them. Once per semester, for four years, around the same time. I am burdened by studying and assignments, a fierce panic about my grades, and mental distress. I have to hold on tight to my sanity and get through them. But what is the cost of students spending substantial energy on these tests?
According to a 2023 mental health report by Mental Health America, Kentucky is 31st in youth rankings. Furthermore, 74.7% of youth with Major Depressive Episode did not receive mental health services this year in our commonwealth. Mental health is an issue that should be more openly discussed to continue fighting stigma, including when academics are involved. As students shift from winter-break mode into the back-to-school routine, we should talk more about how finals affect students’ mental well-being, impact different students differently, and encourage students to reach out for support.
Though I found a limited number of mental health-related surveys conducted on high school students during exams, there is ample evidence that young people in school are highly susceptible to mental health challenges . A 2021 study published in the National Library of Medicine found that “medical students are prone to the development of mental health problems, particularly during times of high and unavoidable exam stress.” These types of issues are also experienced by high school students. According to a Youth Risk Behavior report “In 2019, about 37% of high school students had experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.” In my high school, due to final exams being critical contributors to class grades at the end of the semester, they can be even more stressful for students than other tests.
Even though winter break is often viewed as an optimistic reward after finals, the academic hardship associated with end-of-term, high-stakes exams can be a taxing stressor for students. Its usual occurrence twice every school year may be fleeting, but its effects on students can be mentally jarring for those without the resources or knowledge to handle the workload or the aftermath. Sometimes, feelings of distress may linger after the tests take place. Once break comes, support can be even harder to reach.
Students are impacted by finals week in unique ways, some of whom spoke to The New Edu and whose names are being changed to protect privacy.
“I think Finals Week has a significant impact on students' mental health,” Layla*, a sophomore at Boyle County High School, said. “Students take a lot of time studying and not prioritizing physical and mental well-being,” she explained. Layla noted that the nature of classes and the work they each demand contribute to students’ circumstances. "I know students in higher-level classes (AP or Honors) have a lot of pressure on them to succeed in finals."
Some may argue that since students choose their schedule, a class's rigor is expected and shouldn’t cause stress. However, when it comes to AP classes, this rationale is not helpful for many students. Layla said, “Being in an AP class added so much stress to my life. I put all my effort into making sure I did well. When finals came along, I studied for a straight week. The stress and pressure of finals made me so exhausted when winter break came."
Even though many students feel finals strain their mental health, others think of them differently. “I’m feeling fine,” Jaiden*, another Boyle County High Schooler, said. “I’m quite prepared, and I’m not worried about any of my grades.” When it came to whether or not finals’ impacted his mental health, he added, “Personally, not much,'' since school finals have yet to “mess up my peace of mind.” Nonetheless, Jaiden believes that finals do impact the mental health of many students challenged by test-taking and memorization.
A commentary by researchers published by the National Library of Medicine focused on university students’ mental health and wellness, mentions that “mental health is associated with academic performance,” therefore, "promoting the mental health of students is a good educational strategy for improving retention and promoting academic attainment.” This shows how schools making mental health a priority can not only be beneficial to students’ wellness, but also help their academic success.
There should be a balance between how much schools encourage exam readiness and mental well-being. Jaiden suggests that measures be taken “to better prepare students for finals and the stress that comes with them.”
Making sure students are aware of specific resources at their schools is important to encourage them to reach out for support. According to the Kentucky Department of Education, “social workers and school counselors" are part of “school-based mental health services” provided to students at schools. “I have a close relationship with my school counselor,” Layla shared. “I know if I walked into her office, that she would try to help me in any way she could," she added. But not all students are aware of the mental health resources available to them.
Mental health should be a priority in our school systems, especially when finals roll around. Ideally, exams should serve as indicators of students' knowledge throughout the semester. Their mental health should not be hindered by all the stress packaged into academics. As Layla affirms, “finals and academics do not define a person,” which I believe to be unequivocally true.