Every month, members of Oregon Student Voice come together to discuss and learn about a timely topic together. These meetings, completely student-led, are an opportunity for middle and high schoolers to share their opinions and experiences. The comments shared help OSV guide organization-wide efforts and inform other education stakeholders on students’ thoughts. This month, students across the state discussed the importance of mental health, how school affects their wellbeing, and strategies for coping with pressure and stress.
What is Mental Health?
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services defines mental health as “includ[ing] our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.” When talking about what this means practically, students said that mental health means checking in with themselves and being self-aware of their feelings. Taking care of their mental health means reaching out for support when needed, avoiding comparison with their peers, and focusing on themselves and their needs. They agreed that taking care of their physical health—eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep, staying hydrated—was an important factor in taking care of their emotional wellbeing.
How does school affect students’ mental health?
From the pressures of getting into college to the unnecessarily heavy workload, students generally agreed that school was a main cause of stress and anxiety. The pressure to get perfect grades, take Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes, score well on standardized tests, balance extracurriculars, and get accepted into a good college—among other pressures—can build up a lot of stress in students’ lives.
Because students are so young, the stress placed on high schoolers has detrimental effects. Teenagers’ brains are still developing, and the immense pressure placed on their minds can have even worse effects. Students made the point that if the same pressures were applied on an adult, whose brains are fully developed, they also wouldn’t be able to balance it all. Teenagers must handle a heavy course load, homework, familial obligations, extracurriculars, and pressures from home and school, and many students take it with stride. However, this pressure just isn’t sustainable for their mental health.
Students are faced with dozens of tasks daily, from studying to extracurriculars to familial duties. Adults tell students that schools are preparing them for the future, but students quickly debunked this argument. After adding up time spent on school, homework, extracurriculars, after school jobs, sports, and other activities per week, it’s obvious that students spend more time on their “duties” than adults do at their typical “nine to five” jobs. Furthermore, in the working world, it is seldom that an adult has 10 assignments in eight distinct subject areas due within a week. Instead of preparing students for the “real world,” schools actually put more pressure on students than future careers would.
These stressors and pressures have made school an unconducive learning environment. Instead of being excited to learn, students feel that they’re taught just to pass a test or get a good grade. They’re told that grades aren’t as important as their mental health, but get berated by teachers and parents for their “subpar” academic performance. It’s impossible to disregard test scores and GPAs when students are told that those factors are what determine their entire future. The narrative told by schools is that there’s only one right path to success, one of high academic performance and an acceptance letter to a top university. These messages can create an atmosphere where students aren’t comfortable taking an “untraditional” path. They create an unsafe environment where students feel they can’t ask for help or get support. Students stressed that schools needed more mental health support for students to handle the immense pressure placed on them.
The support systems currently in place simply aren’t sufficient. For many students, school is the only place where they have a chance to get the support they need. Families often aren’t equipped to handle mental crises or illnesses. Moreover, students spend the majority of their time at school or school-sanctioned activities, meaning their educators are usually the most accessible resource for them. Although schools continuously claim to “be there” for students and tell them to reach out if they need support, it’s clear that this isn’t the reality in most school districts. Across the state, there is a lack of mental health counselors, social workers, and school psychologists. In schools where there are sufficient counselors and teachers willing to help students, they're assigned dozens of other tasks like creating lesson plans and schedules. Even when an adult is willing to give support to a student, boundaries like administrative rules stop students from gaining access to the resources they truly need.
In addition, members found hypocrisy in schools’ messaging about mental health. In some health class curriculums, students are taught to take care of their mental wellbeing and to manage their stress. However, the same classes are the main cause of students’ emotional distress. It’s unrealistic for educators to ask students to remain emotionally healthy when their classes place heavy workloads. In the same classes where students are told to maintain their mental health, they’re assigned essays, exams, and worksheets that prevent them from doing so.
How do students destress?
Teenagers have balanced the pressures of being a student their entire lives, and many have developed stress management techniques that work for them. Common activities include listening to music, talking to friends, and playing sports. Turning to external distractions like TV shows, crafts, social media, and video games is another way students manage their emotional wellbeing during the school year. Some students try to remember that their current stressor– whether that be an exam or essay– likely won’t be significant in the grand scheme of their life.
How has COVID-19 and the Oregon wildfires affected how students take care of their mental health?
Social isolation can be detrimental to people’s social health, especially teenagers. With the shelter-in-place orders made by Governor Brown, everyone’s forced to stay indoors, away from work and school. The normal pressures of being a teenager are exacerbated by our unprecedented circumstances. Students struggle to stay engaged in class and worry about college transcripts. Their normal stress management techniques may have been disrupted, with sports seasons being cancelled and school moving online.
Additionally, students have found it more difficult to get support during the pandemic. Although many therapists and psychologists have switched to Zoom appointments, there’s no doubt that the support systems at school are even less sufficient to handle the mental health crisis that comes along with COVID. Scheduling and lesson planning for an online school year is no easy feat for Oregon’s teachers, and there’s not enough time to ensure that students’ emotional needs are met.
Despite this, students have found a way to continue taking care of themselves. In quarantine, they say they’ve been exploring nature more often and valuing time spent with friends, even if their interaction is virtual. Pre-pandemic, students turned to technology for stress management. Due to social distancing guidelines, their lives feel consumed by Zoom calls and Google Drive, so many teenagers find themselves on a walk, run, or bike ride to get away from their screens. However, with the recent wildfires and smoke, students were kept indoors. Now that the air is cleaner, teenagers have been valuing their time outside.
Throughout the pandemic, students have also found new ways to connect with others. Shelter-in-place orders mean teenagers can’t see friends face-to-face without masks and social distancing, so students have turned to new means of maintaining their social health. Some students joined new organizations to meet new people from different backgrounds; others began writing letters to a penpal from another state or country. Many students said that they had begun connecting or reconnecting with old friends.
The issue of mental health is very important, especially in the midst of a global pandemic that has created a need to socially distance from others. We need to be taking care of our mental health just like we do with our physical health: take necessary precautions against illness, remain aware of our wellbeing, and reach out when we need support. This week (10/4-10/11) is National Mental Illness Awareness week. 1 in 5 students across the U.S. show signs/symptoms of a mental disorder in a given year (NPR). Below are a few mental health resources for students. If you or someone you’re close to demonstrates symptoms or signs of mental illness, please reach out for support.
- Or text ‘teen2teen’ to 839863
Emily Zou is a freshman at Lakeridge High School and a member at Oregon Student Voice, a student-led organization that empowers all students to be authentic partners in making decisions that affect their K-12 education.