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Change unhealthy academic environments at their source

By Katarina Weessies

Section: Opinions

April 1, 2016

It’s no secret that school has gotten progressively more stressful. Most media coverage of academic stress has focused on high-achieving, privileged high schoolers, but the increasing stress of students is visible at all ages and across all socioeconomic classes. According to a study from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, the majority of high school students feel “tired,” “stressed” and “bored” at school. If you ask university students how they feel at school, their answers would probably be similar.

The effects of high-stress high school environments are apparent at Brandeis. Consistent stress over long periods of time almost always leads to symptoms of mental illness, and Brandeis students are no exception. Consistent academic stress can leave students physically unhealthy and unable to cope effectively with trauma. Mental illness is rampant at Brandeis, with many students suffering from depression and anxiety disorders that are deeply connected to academic stress. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article detailing the prevalence of mental illness at Brandeis. What I didn’t mention is that for many Brandeis students, this mental illness began in high school.

Most research about mental illness on college campuses problematically treats mental illness among university students as if it suddenly popped up after they entered university. However, most of the time, stress-related mental illnesses begin to build during adolescence. The stressful environment of American high schools can exacerbate already existent mental illnesses or cause otherwise neurotypical students to form mental illnesses due to the effects of constant stress.

The pressure to succeed resonates differently across different socioeconomic, racial and gender groups. For example, students from lower-income neighborhoods might feel intense social pressure to “make it out” of their current socioeconomic situation by being accepted into an upper-tier university, while more privileged students might feel academic pressure based on the success of their family members and peers at school. Across the board, high schools tend to create a make-or-break environment that tells students that their academic performance is the sole factor that determines their future success and their worth as a human being.

High school amplifies the harmful effects of this make-or-break attitude by subjecting students to wildly complex and poorly constructed standardized testing, assigning unbearable amounts of homework and pressuring students to take up time-consuming and often unnecessary extracurricular activities. The buildup of stressors in the educational environment leads students to associate education with negative emotions such as exhaustion or stress.

Unfortunately, this unhealthy attitude about academics carries over into university. Many students enter schools like Brandeis as emotional wrecks, and this emotional difficulty is only exacerbated by the high-performing, fast-paced Brandeis student body. Of course, it is wonderful that Brandeis students are motivated enough to maintain their academic performance, but the notoriously intense work ethic of Brandeis students can lead to sleep deprivation, exhaustion, stress, malnutrition and all sorts of other emotional and physical issues.

The stress, and all its related mental illnesses, suffered by Brandeis students will not subside unless enormous changes are made to the educational system as a whole. The harmful attitude cultivated by American high schools guarantees that many students will enter Brandeis with mental illnesses. The school’s psychological resources are not well equipped to deal with the enormous influx of mentally ill students. Unfortunately for Brandeis students, unless American high schools completely change the attitude with which they approach education, the prevalence of mental illness at Brandeis and other institutions of higher education will continue to increase.

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