15 Serious Facts About High School Stress

One of the greatest lies ever perpetuated about the teen years is that they’re supposedly “the best years of your life.” Ask any high schooler these days how he or she genuinely feels about this statement and the opposite sentiment might very well end up relayed instead, regardless of where students live: West Virginia, Wyoming, Delaware, Alaska – doesn’t matter. Every year, more and more pressures regarding classes, getting into the right college (or deciding if college is even the right choice), families, jobs, extracurricular activities, friends, relationships, and other stimuli just keep burbling away beneath their still-developing forms. Suffice it to say, this avalanche of stress hinders their progress and personalities far more than it helps, but many think they have no real alternative. Without persistently striving toward an unattainable perfection, students find themselves trapped between success or failure, with no “gray areas” in between. And the situation worsens every year, although there are plenty of things administrators, teachers, parents, and even the teens themselves can to do promote calmness and balance. Before that, though, they should understand exactly what’s at stake when it comes to stress and anxiety in the high school classroom.

  1. Most high school students consider cheating OK: According to a CNN poll of 4,500 high schoolers, around 75% engage in “serious cheating,” over half plagiarize directly from the Internet, and about 50% believe that copying answers doesn’t even count as cheating. Such questionable ethics apparently stem directly from absurd competition, since grades mean the difference between getting into a dream school and a backup. To alleviate the mounting stress to constantly perform at the highest level, students turn toward cheating and compromising their own education as a solution.
  2. One in five teens qualify as clinically depressed: According to Mental Health America’s estimates, 20% of teens are clinically depressed, and the real tragedy lies with how their parents and teachers approach the subject. Because so many dismiss the symptoms of depression as mere adolescent adjustments, a disconcerting number of these teens go without the treatment they need to enjoy a healthy, happy life. Obviously, depression stems from numerous factors beyond just heightened academic pressures. But they certainly render already painful situations even worse, regardless of whether or not they exist as the root cause.
  3. Stress ups the suicide rate…: Over in the UK, Oakgrove head teacher John Harkin told The Guardian that anywhere between 600 to 800 students between the ages of 15 and 24 commit suicide annually. A poll of 804 teachers revealed that 73% considered school (and life in general) far more stressful for students than in the previous decade, which more than likely contributes to the climbing suicide rate. Eighty-nine percent believed high-stakes classroom assignments and exams played a major (if not the premiere) role in nurturing anxiety.
  4. …oh, and self-harm, too: Beyond suicide, though, British students also cause self-harm in greater numbers than before, correlating with the increase in school and other life pressures. As reported by The Guardian, 46% of polled teachers claimed they knew of kids in middle and high school harming themselves. Cutting seems to be the most popular trend beneath this tragic umbrella, although anorexia — which, by the way, has little to do with simply wanting to “be skinny” — and other eating disorders appear on the rise as well.
  5. The same thing happens in the U.S., too: The problem of depression, anxiety and suicide transcends nationality, and The Almanac printed statistics from the National Institutes of Health and its study on random San Francisco students. Although obviously not indicative of the whole nation’s risk, it did highlight the relationship between stress and mental health taxing the youth. A staggering 30% of the city’s high schoolers suffered beneath a suicide risk, and one institution in particular (Menlo-Atherton High School) saw 40 teens forced to go under behavior monitoring within a year.
  6. Some schools have purged the AP Program altogether…: Despite the prestige heaped onto offering Advanced Placement classes and harboring students who get stellar scores on the affiliated exams, some schools have decided to forgo them completely. These college-level courses taught in high school require a heftier workload than their level and honors counterparts, and institutions like Beaver Country Day School in Massachusetts don’t think the inflated stress is worth the emotional and physiological toll. So they’ve obliterated the program, which they claim has no impact whatsoever on graduates’ eventual college acceptance and success.
  7. …and managed to implement some successful alternatives, too: Along with jettisoning the AP Program, some schools — like the aforementioned Beaver Country Day School — have decided to implement other measures to keep students from succumbing to stress. More low-key assignments, like shooting videos or writing songs, prove just as effective as more rote, lecture-based methods used in traditional classrooms. Other strategies include weekends with no homework assigned, improved communication between teachers so major exams don’t correspond with those in other classes, and longer study and recreation periods. Once again, the school reports that these strategies improve the quality of life for their students without compromising their academic performance or potential.
  8. And the teachers on the front lines could be doing better as well: Regardless of whether or not they work in a school experimenting with more stress-reduction methods, teachers themselves could generally do better when nurturing mentally and emotionally healthy students,  especially those teachers with Advanced Placement kiddos under their care. Menlo-Atherton High School math teacher Jerry Brodkey practices empathy in his classroom, tailoring his workloads to maximize education while minimizing anxiety. Such a simple concept and awareness of his students’ lives beyond his calculus and algebra classes resulted in improved scores once AP Exam time rolled around. Not to mention some seriously positive teacher evaluations mentioning how the relaxed atmosphere better facilitated learning and information retention.
  9. It starts much earlier than high school: Increased college competition means increased high school competition. Increased high school competition means increased middle school competition. Increased middle school competition means increased elementary school competition. Once students get to the last four compulsory grades, the pressure to constantly excel and perform has already been shoved into their growing bodies. So when kids do succumb to the pressures, chances are they may very well have been lurking beneath the surface long before freshman year.
  10. Female students feel it harder than their male peers: A survey conducted by the Associated Press and MTV discovered that of the 85% of students claiming they experienced “stress at least sometimes” (if not more than that), most were female. Forty-five percent reported they felt it “frequently,” compared to 32% of their male colleagues. Most disconcertingly, the trend seemed to reflect an increase in stress and anxiety levels when compared to surveys from the year before — at least 10 points higher, says MSNBC. Interestingly enough, students hailing from mid-range income families experienced far more pressure than those from low- or high-income ones.
  11. Girls are more likely to suppress their stress: Not only are female students more likely to experience hefty amounts of stress, they also typically handle it more discreetly than males. However, the boys don’t always handle it healthily, either — according to Dr. Roni Cohen-Sandler, they typically react to the anxieties by dropping out mentally. Social pressures push girls towards constant perfection in school, extracurriculars, appearances, relationships and friendships without ever growing ragged or showing signs of exhaustion (what sociologist Michael Kimmel refers to as “effortlessly perfect”). In fact, 55% told the psychologist they place almost unnecessary amounts of stress on themselves to maintain society’s near-impossible expectations of flawlessness.
  12. School ranks as the highest stressor in high school students’ lives: For both females and males between the ages of 13 and 17, school stood as their primary conduit of super stress. Once they hit the 18-to-25-year-old demographic, work supplants academics. But high schoolers face down more anxieties than that, including (but not limited to) bullying, broken homes, substance abuse (or the temptation towards substance abuse), relationships and sex, jobs, extracurricular activities, appearances and more. Girls and young women in particular find themselves petrified for safety reasons at a higher rate than their male counterparts, as they’re more likely to be the victims of rape and sexual assault.
  13. GPAs are increasing: In California, at least, where state schools saw a significant rise in the GPAs of incoming freshman between 2003 and 2009. Petaluma360.com’s Colleen Rustad noted that UC Davis transitioned from a 3.86 to a 4.0 average, and Berkeley witnessed an increase from 3.58 to 3.61. So while some modicum of positivity can be squeezed out of the overworked teenagers’ plight, the serious mental and physical health tolls often render them a rather Pyrrhic victory instead.
  14. Parents can exacerbate the situation…: Even the most well-meaning, loving moms and dads (or grandparents or aunts or uncles or legal guardians) run the risk of contributing to Little Junior or Muffy’s ever-mounting anxiety. Although parents and guardians should encourage and support their kids’ academic and (within reason) personal goals, they should stay alert for signs of burnout as well. Success (ethically earned, of course) is always great, but should never take precedence over the health, safety and overall well-being of a student, either. The likelihood of entering an Ivy League university even with a perfect record sits between 7% and 18%, and there’s no shame in pointing kids toward more affordable — and still thoroughly viable — options requiring less strenuous high schooling.
  15. …but they’re also key in making it better: Dr. Cohen-Sandler’s research revealed that less than 50% of the most stressed-out female students believed their parents and guardians didn’t notice the mental and physical cracks forming. Along with “less stress” and “more sleep,” the primary thing this demographic desires is more communication and support from parents and guardians. They believe bouncing their feelings off a more experienced individual who knows them well will prove game-changing in better managing their time, emotions, friendships, and other messy hallmarks of being a teen. In addition, tighter-knit, more genuine social circles and the eradication of “mean girls” will considerably help ease the transition into adulthood.