By: Twumasi Duah-Mensah
These days, if you hang around high-achieving students at any American high school, you might hear accounts of panic attacks and mental breakdowns. No need to be alarmed: if you’re there long enough, the stories will become so common, you won’t be bothered. Tidal waves of student stress haven’t spared Heritage, either, as English teacher Jessie Yates has discovered.
“Students com[e] in and are either having an anxiety attack over, to me, what seems to be the smallest assignment,” Ms. Yates documents in her interview with the Herald, “or they come in and everything just seems overwhelming to them.” The smallest assignment? Surely, students aren’t fidgeting or sweating or biting their nails over “the smallest assignment,” right? Well…
At the end of almost every week, Yates’ AP students are expected to complete a timed-writing as practice for the AP exam. It’d be normal for some students to feel slightly underprepared or nervous, but when students you know have done their best to prepare are exhibiting clear physical signs of an anxiety attack, as Ms. Yates has increasingly noticed, it’s the sign of a new normal. A new, worrying normal.
“Even though [timed-writings] happen every week, it becomes stress-inducing and anxiety-inducing,” hypothesizes Ms. Yates, who uses a stress ball to distract herself when she needs to unplug from stress-inducing tasks. Now, she hopes her plan of bringing a selection of stress balls and coloring books for her students will help them cope with their struggles.
Now, Ms. Yates is no therapist. She can’t help students develop personal coping mechanisms. All she can hope is that, by bringing stress balls and coloring books, students stop short of total burnout, temporarily unplug, and clear their minds. “You have the physical component of a stress ball,” she explains, “and you have the mind-numbing component of a coloring book.”
Heritage counselor John Walston agrees. He finds interventions like Ms. Yates’ important. “Students and adults [need] something they enjoy doing outside of work and school,” he states. But why is this the generation of students who can’t cope with high school?
Ms. Yates speculates that it’s not just the assignment but the many other pressures students face, from getting into a top college, to finding a part-time job to pay for college, to taking AP classes to get into a top college, to doing well on the ACT and SAT to get into a top college, to honoring your commitments to organizations—some done to get into a top college—all while maintaining relationships with and expectations of your friends and family. It’s not too difficult for students’ near-impossible balancing act to fall apart and turn into something worse to watch.
As a counselor, Mr. Walston observes the pressure to achieve clouds students’ minds every day. He has applauded those who can come to his office without asking about their GPA—not to patronize them or dismiss their concerns about college, but because across the country, it’s become normal to leave stress unmanaged until it becomes unmanageable. Counselors and teachers can only do so much, so Walston has a few recommendations for students to remain in control and for parents to assist.
First, it’s okay to feel stressed as a teenager. “Handling stress is something that gets better with age,” Mr. Walston establishes. It’s not okay, however, for parents to allow their teen to hide behind “I’m good” or “school was good,” nor is it okay for parents to shame them for who they are.
Mr. Walston believes if parents are “accepting of who their children are, as long as they’re not hurting anybody, [it] can go a long way.” Parents should ask their high schoolers about what’s bothering them and, he proposes, “be available just to listen.” They “don’t have to be therapists. If they don’t know what advice to give on certain topics, they can reach out to people who do.” Sometimes, those people are professionals. Many other times, they’re students who understand what their peers are going through who can and should step up to a deceptively challenging task that only requires an open ear.
Things used to be simpler. We didn’t need all this mental-health counseling or intervention back in the day. It shouldn’t have to be this complicated to grow up as a teenager. Students’ issues, however, can’t be shoved into a closet and we return to normalcy. This is, unfortunately, our new reality.
There is, though, a light to guide students and parents out of their dark caves. If we start listening to each other more than trying to fix everything, we won’t completely halt the epidemic, but we will ensure students suffering in silence won’t become the norm.