We go to a high-achieving school. What does this say about our stress levels?

Danielle Nares '21, Staff Writer

Despite its many variations, most of our parents (and even we ourselves) believe in a foolproof roadmap to success: it starts in high school with good grades that get us into good colleges, which in turn launch us into nice, stable, and lucrative careers. While it sounds simple, there is so much stress surrounding this path that it may do more harm than good.

High school is not as it used to be; years ago good grades and test scores would suffice to get into top colleges. With every new applicant pool, the struggle for admissions into elite institutions becomes harder than the year prior. As a result, some students feel pressured to earn national titles, Olympic medals, or hundreds of hours of service. To support students, high schools like SLS provide extensive academic and extracurricular opportunities. These “high-achieving” schools are then able to boast high test scores and a higher admission rate in the top 50 universities. While students and parents alike achieve their goals of getting themselves or their children respectively into good colleges, is it really worth a student’s mental health?

At the end of September, the Washington Post released an article titled “Students in high-achieving schools are now named an ‘at-risk’ group, study says,”which included multiple mental health studies on students who attend privileged schools.

This article cites a recent study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, whose goal was to advance health equity in the United States. The Academies added students who attend “high achieving schools” to the list of  “at risk” groups, side-by-side with children living in poverty or foster care, those who are immigrants, and children who have incarcerated parents. Ironically, students whose parents can afford to pay private school tuition or to live in an area with good public schools are at risk for mental health issues, just like those who are in an opposite financial state.

Additionally, according to the article, last year other scientists came to a similar conclusion and determined that the “excessive pressure to excel” is among the top environmental conditions affecting adolescent wellness. Adolescents in affluent schools are two times more likely to suffer high rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and delinquent behaviors than the average student across the country.

Similar to the previous study, the article also mentions one done by Challenge Success, a research organization that reported that three quarters (75%) of high school students (out of 43,000 students) from “high-achieving” schools are “often or always feeling stressed.” Over two thirds (66.7%) are “often or always worried about getting into the college of their choice.”

To measure the stress levels here at SLS and to see how we compare to schools like this one, I conducted a similar survey here. In comparison to the average set by Challenge Success, 47% of students at St. Luke’s responded that they are “very/always” stressed and 50.7% of students are somewhat stressed. Additionally, only 8% of high school students here are not stressed about getting into the colleges of their choice, which means that 92% of students are worried or believe they will be worried about the college process.

Since our average stress levels are slightly lower than those at the national level, are no-homework nights or other stress-reducing practices here really lowering the stress for students? Currently, Mr. Fancher encourages teachers to have their students “power pose” before a test to release endorphins and reduce stress. Additionally, other teachers practice mindfulness exercises during class. For many students this may seem awkward or boring, but if we implement more of these practices will the student experience at SLS less stressful?

Students recommend that teachers send fewer APRs, whether they are good or bad, because they get anxious and stressed knowing that APRs are sent to parents. Additionally, they ask teachers to be mindful of the amount of homework they assign because “some teachers assign homework as if [students] only have homework for their class.”

In general, this unrelenting pressure from parents who expect straight A’s and schools that require higher standardized score averages is inescapable, both here at SLS and at schools across the country. To combat this stress, high schoolers formerly turned to sports and other extracurricular activities for relief. However, this arena has also transformed into a competition to be the best, and has thus become an additional stressor; 62% of SLS students believe that adolescents are pressured to be the best in their extracurricular activity.

For many of us, these studies should be eye-opening. Whether on a school-level or on a personal level, students, parents, and administrators should be aware of the effects of stress on students. For those at SLS who are experiencing the harsh realities of pressure, this news is both comforting and scary. It is good that these statistics shed light on the issue; however, it is scary for students who may be experiencing the effects or see themselves inching towards the line between constantly overwhelmed and chronically anxious or even depressed.

As high school students, it is too early in our lives to “burnout” – there is a lot ahead of us. We cannot let our stress overwhelm us to the point where we do not reward ourselves for our accomplishments. New stress-reducing practices at SLS can only help students to a certain point; it is ultimately the student’s job to recognize the best way to manage these levels, and to reach out to someone who can help, if necessary.