By: Loren Haas
The American educational system has changed over the past sixty years, and these changes have opened the door for anxiety and other mental disorders to become commonplace among students. Competition for selective universities is fierce. Focus in the classroom has transitioned to preparing for college. Exams like the ACT and the AP Exams are always around the corner. Grades have become a priority over sleep, community activities and social activities. With all the changes that have happened in just a short span of time, it is no wonder that the number of students suffering from anxiety have gone through the roof.
Anxiety is nothing new; in fact, mental disorders like anxiety and mood disorders affect over 450 million people worldwide. Forty-nine percent of the general population suffers from anxiety, depression, substance abuse or some combination thereof, and eight percent of teenagers in the United States suffer from anxiety on its own.
The number of anxiety cases have increased drastically since the 1950s; nowadays, the anxiety of an average high school student is equal to that of a 1950s psychiatric patient. Counselors from across the country have reported having to deal with students suffering from anxiety attacks on a daily basis, something they have rarely had to handle until recently. School counselor Anna Graham said she tends to see a student suffering from anxiety in her office one or two times a month.
“We are seeing more students who experience anxiousness,” Graham said, “I don’t think we are seeing more actual attacks of anxiety, but definitely an increase in the number of students who are describing feelings of anxiousness or overwhelmed. The American School Counselor Association states that anxiety disorders affects one out of every eight teens.”
The blame for the increase has been shifted onto many different issues. As stress and pressure have increased at schools, anxiety has increased as well, but many other factors are in play. Divorce, for example, is facing some of the blame, along with social media and the failures in the economy and job market. The more disastrous the outside world appears to students, the worse the anxiety gets.
“Stress and anxiety can come from academic [stressors] – testing, schedules, workload, excessive absences – and social stressors, as well as environmental [stressors, such as home, family situations, lack of sleep, [and] nutrition,” Graham said.
The signs are here, even at Hardin Valley Academy. In the 2015-2016 school year, the Progressive Hawks club posted notes around campus about student debt to advocate for reform; instead, multiple students suffered from panic attacks. The notes had been ripped down in a matter of days. The facts behind student debt and college admissions were enough to send students at Hardin Valley Academy into a panic.
Anxiety has far-reaching impacts; it can interfere with a student’s education and social life. Students suffering from anxiety could struggle with presentations and have to even miss part or all of a class because of a panic attack. People suffering from anxiety may avoid social situations. Anxiety can even have negative impacts on one’s physical health. Those who suffer from a panic disorder are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, ulcers and diabetes. There is also an increased risk for cardiac problems and respiratory disorders.
Schools have tried to react the best they can. Some policies have been passed to address the issue, but it is not enough to truly cut down on the levels of anxiety that riddle students today. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, parents can request accommodations for their children if they are diagnosed with anxiety, but it does nothing for undiagnosed students.
“The school counseling office is beginning a group for students who would like to develop strategies for dealing with stress and anxiousness,” Graham said. “The group will meet after school for 30-45 minutes once a week. I haven’t worked out details, but be looking for more information through announcements.”
However, diagnoses and support groups can only go so far on their own. Colleges will continue to be selective. Relationships will continue to be strained. Students still have to sacrifice social and relaxing time, vital for proper development, for ACT Prep, tutoring and hours of studying and assignments. A diagnosis does nothing to change the pressures; it only offers outlets for the student. The academic and social pressures in high school today will require students to sacrifice their mental health and wellbeing again and again, and the numbers can only get worse from here if nothing is done.