Stress in the Lives of High School Students


by David Ferguson

Cody Grimm is not an average student at Hudson High, but his story is also not uncommon. He is in two AP classes. He is a member of National Honor Society. He is an active member of the drama society. He has band practice on Fridays. He has filed college applications, been on college tours, and applied for numerous scholarships. He works on Saturdays and Sundays. All the while, he is balancing the typical teenage trials of growing up and finding his way in the world.

According to APA’s 2013 Stress in America survey, teenagers are “the most stressed-out age group in the U.S.” for the first time ever. This may be no different in Hudson. In a recent survey of 120 students it was found that the average student stress level (6.5/10) exceeded what students believe to be a healthy level of stress (3.4/10).

And this stress is affecting students’ well-beings. Of the students surveyed 81% reported feeling overwhelmed, nearly half reported feeling depressed or irritable, and 60% reported feeling anxious and tired. All as the result of stress.

Beyond the stress itself, students’ ways of managing their stress can be harmful to their health. In my survey, students reported drug use, self-harm, and eating as methods of managing stress. All of which are short-term fixes, which will have little to no impact on long-term stress management. Not only can these issues be harmful to the body, but they can also harm the mind and cause long-term psychological and physical problems.

Furthermore, many students reported feeling tired; many saying they don’t go to bed until eleven or later. And even if student are falling to sleep around eleven and waking up at six, that leaves them with seven hours of sleep, far less than the nine to ten hours that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends for teens. Sleep is essential not only for development, but for health reasons. A lack of sleep can cause depression and other mental illnesses. As one student said, “sleep deprivation should not be a part of high school.”

“[It is] concerning that [teenagers] seem to underestimate the potential impact that stress has on their physical and mental health,” said American Psychological Association CEO Norman B. Anderson, PhD. “In order to break this cycle of stress and unhealthy behaviors as a nation, we need to provide teens with better support and health education at school and home, at the community level and in their interactions with health-care professionals.”

Among a myriad of other causes — including family issues, social pressures, work, and extra-curricular activities — an overwhelming majority (94%) of students claimed that school work was a contributing factor to stress. While it is important to push students to explore different interests and activities, what is the cost of this pressure?

Hudson students' sources of stress
Hudson students’ sources of stress

“We live in an age where everything is always happening,” said senior Cam Mallet. “We are taught to just go, go, go. They want us to do this and do that. They don’t give you time to stop and think about what is happening. It feels like we aren’t learning to stop and enjoy life.”

Much of the current push for students to take honors and AP classes has come as a result of the increased scrutiny in college admissions. “Colleges definitely want to see honors and AP classes,” said Angie Wilcox, Director of Guidance. “So we just pass that information on. In the thirteen years that I’ve been here, college admissions have become harder and harder. They want to see students doing more and students are trying to do more.”

And students are seeing the effects in the classroom. “Kids are constantly being pushed by the school and their parents to take high level classes, and these students are being put into these higher level classes,” said Mallet. “This can slow down the class and some of these students struggle. And I am not saying that students shouldn’t take these classes, but they have to be driven; they can’t expect that kids shoved into these classes will make it work.”

These changes in the classroom are not just being seen in high school classrooms. “Kids are being pushed too hard nowadays,” said Mallet. “Things that we didn’t start learning until middle school the kids are learning in third grade. At Forest Ave, there are kindergartners taking technology classes.”

A study conducted by two University of Virginia researchers found that students are, in many places around the country, learning at younger and younger ages. Their studies found that in 1998 only 31% of kindergarten teachers believed most students should learn to read while in kindergarten, while in 2006, 56% of teachers believe students should be learning to read. The classroom time spent on literacy has risen by 25% between 1998 and 2006.

This has a trickle-up effect. As students learn more when they are younger, the level of work on high-schoolers becomes harder. And stress appears to increase as students make their way through school. According to the 2012 Metrowest Adolescent Health Survey, 25.1% of Hudson High students reported having a “very” stressful life. Although, only 15.4% of 9th graders and 19.5% of 10th graders reported stressful lives, as opposed to 34% of juniors and seniors.

The new schedule has also affected students. The problem has been unpredictability. “With the old schedule I would have relatively the same amount of homework each night because I had the same four classes every day,” said senior Brandyn Greeno. “With the new schedule sometimes I will have homework in two classes and other times I will have homework in all five. This year it is a lot harder to plan for the work.”

For many students the workload has been troubling. “Schoolwork gets stressful with everything else going on,” said freshman Brian Twomey. “Doing extra-curriculars, focusing on homework, and trying to have a social life is a hard-line to balance. I’m an average student in academic classes. My parents and guidance are pushing me to take honors classes next year. I feel a lot of pressure to do more than I am capable of.”

The push for students to focus on academics has come with its trade-offs. As more teachers and parents emphasize the importance of school work, there is less time spent on exploring interests, learning to interact socially, and, most importantly, teaching students stress management techniques. It is important that students know how they can deal with stress and what resources they have available to them. Currently, Hudson Public Schools is in the process of drafting a new wellness policy that will focus on social and emotional health. While still in draft form, this new policy would focus on classroom work around managing stress, building awareness about stress and its effects, and informing students about community resources.

Student stress has become a nationwide issue, and there has been a recent push in Massachusetts to help students deal with stress.

The issue is local. Just 45 minutes down the road from Hudson, the students of Newton High School have seen devastation as a result of many factors, one of which is likely stress. In February, the third Newton student in the matter of four months, committed suicide. The student was taking multiple AP and honors classes and was an athlete.

If Hudson can learn anything from this tragic year Newton, it is that talking to students about stress is not enough. It is up to parents, students, and administration to get out the message that a person is good enough just the way they are; we have to let students know that they are not going to be the best at everything and that is OK; we have to let students know that they do not need to take an AP class if they are not ready. It is important to support students, but also to help them find ways to support themselves.

“I am lucky that I have found an outlet for stress in music,” said Grimm. It is important that more students find the same.