Under Pressure: An essay on school stress and mental health

Immense pressure built into school isn’t consistent with supporting students’ mental health.

A red pencil is breaking after it underlines "STRESS," which is written in bright red capital letters on a white piece of paper.
I was in my Psychology class taking notes on anxiety when I felt like I had just read my life story. Mid-assignment, I started shaking and had difficulty continuing my work. My thoughts began to spiral: If I didn't write my notes, I would fail the test. If I failed the test I wouldn’t graduate. If I didn’t graduate I wouldn’t go to college, wouldn’t be accomplished, and soon enough, would have failed at life.

This account from a Kentucky student is just a fraction of the plethora of tales that the subject of mental health in schools is incomplete without. Unfortunately, I can relate, because education is one of the most powerful tools we need to change the world. We all want to be accomplished–but now, the biggest milestone we have is surviving it. 

Throughout America, schools give awards for best attendance, but they come with no recognition of the mental toll it takes to be present in the classroom. Academic accomplishment is presented as the Holy Grail–yet for students, the pursuit of schools' measures of success often feels like pushing ourselves to the breaking point. That leads to losing sight of the connections that make school meaningful. In the United States, almost 1 in 7 kids and teens have a mental health condition, and nearly half go untreated. According to recent studies, in Kentucky alone, at least 16% of children ages 3 to 17 have depression or anxiety. Schools aren't meeting the mental health needs of students, but this problem–as well as the students experiencing it firsthand–isn’t being understood or approached correctly. The immense pressure built into school isn’t consistent with supporting students' mental health.  

Somewhere a student is sitting in detention for interrupting class with excessive fidgeting, talking, and physical movements. For this student, having ADHD becomes a punishable offense; they are seen as unruly and wayward. 

In another school, a student is barred from attending Prom or after-school activities—a common punishment for students with too many unexcused absences. Is this fair for students with depression, who can face challenges gathering up the strength just to get out of bed, much less to have the capacity to attend a school that doesn't accommodate their needs? 

Elsewhere, a student not participating in class or activities because of a sense of hopelessness and lack of energy is written off as lazy, rather than having their specific needs met as a student with Bipolar Disorder. 

And when common conditions such as anxiety and depression remain stigmatized and punished in schools, what about students with experiences that remain deeply misunderstood by the general public? Students with such diagnoses often struggle to find understanding and support within the structure of school. 

More in school support and friendly environments are both pertinent needs for students with diagnosable and treatable mental health conditions, as well as ways of tending to overall student mental well-being. We can start now by enhancing awareness among our peers, the staff, and ourselves. Some research shows that academic-related stress negatively impacts mental health, physical health, and school performance. The pressure doesn’t help.

Today, it is a normalized and regular occurrence for  students to be forced to stand in front of their class, despite being petrified, often unable to utter a full sentence. Anxiety is seen as "stage fright,” to be casually confronted and overcome; the complexities of mental health are continuously overlooked in the school building. Little do they know how that simple act reinforces the idea of feeling worthless and not good enough in that student's mind by subjecting them to all that anxiety and worry. Then, that can spiral into the affirmations from classmates who feel pity for you, the blank stares and whispers, the cackles, and then, their own self-pity. Even after numerous presentations, it never gets better. It's always the same ambiance, the same fear, and the same high expectations that seem improbable to meet. Having encountered this countless times, I can assert that the way we approach mental health in school needs to change.  

I hope that one day in America every student will see school as a place to be heard, and won't look at school as a place where dreams are deferred, where we are destined to be misunderstood. What we need is understanding as the basic foundation of awareness. Knowledge of the existence of mental health conditions, without the ability to discern whether school stress worsens it, makes it powerless. It is only when we have sufficient understanding of a problem that we can begin to acknowledge and fix it. The understanding of whether stress from school exacerbates a student’s mental health challenges isn’t easy to acquire, but it’s where we have to start. 


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