You’ve seen the statistics; New Zealand’s youth is in trouble. Mental health declines, suicides – our nation has one of the worst rates in the OECD. In my opinion, school is directly related to mental health. You grow up in and with your education – home, school, home, school – it’s cyclical. School is where you learn to become a decent citizen, to tolerate everyone around you, and to learn many basic life skills. It’s where you grow and flourish into a confident, ambitious young adult…Well, that’s what’s supposed to happen. Basic education is beneficial, but it comes with a price – mainly its possible contribution to the poor mental state of students. How, specifically, might school inflict damage upon a student’s mental health?
It begins with Stress, which I touched on in a previous blog. Stress generally arises due to the workload – the assessments are piled on in a relentless avalanche. Supposedly, more tests plus more homework equals more learning, and, therefore, more success. Next, there is the Pressure. Wouldn’t it be nice to learn at your own pace, to be able to complete everything in your own time? This isn’t quite how it works. There’s the Pressure to succeed, to achieve your goals, to be a good student – all under tight time constraints. Following this are the Expectations. The forcefully verbalised or passively suggested Expectations, dumped on you by others or by yourself. Idea and reality often don’t match up, therefore there’s a lot of disappointment around Expectations. Finally, there’s Comparison. It is made crystal clear that success does not come to all. There’s a whole room of kids made out to be your competition. The whole NCEA grading system is based on Comparison, or how you fare compared to other students. Your success is determined by your relation to others. SPEC (Stress, Pressure, Expectation, Comparison). These four core forces (among others) fuel each other, fusing to create one messy, diabolical experience for a student. Can you see how SPEC could harm someone with a mental health condition? Living in this environment for years on end at a young, vulnerable, influenceable age, could, in my opinion, cause a student to develop something negative, or worsen an already present case.
The worst part of school is that those in authority realise that SPEC is happening, and that it’s harmful. Everyone knows that students are negatively impacted by their education. They know it can get to be too much. What’s wrong is the general consensus: You do your work, and you deal with it. You’re supposed to struggle because that’s the nature of school. Why should you have it easy? Your grandparents dealt with it, your parents went through it, and now, so do you. If you complain, you’re weak, pathetic, and making a mountain out of a molehill. It’s only recent generations that have finally mustered up the courage to oppose this notion. Perhaps younger generations are ‘soft’, or maybe they are fed up with the stigma and lasting damage school may be causing. I know I am. The entire culture and structure of school is flawed. If you want to succeed in your education, mental health cannot be your priority. It’s your classes, your assignments, your homework, your millions of other commitments, and then, if you have time, your own wellbeing. That is what makes school so wrong and unfair – the acceptance of students being exceedingly stressed, under extreme pressure to achieve sky-high expectations, and constantly compared to their peers. You can see why this would harm someone living with mental illness. Anxiety, Depression, OCD, I’m only naming a few – school is a breeding ground for this stuff. There are students worrying about what they are doing wrong, and thinking about what everyone else is doing better. Students are going home feeling useless, tired and overwhelmed, dragging themselves to school the next morning feeling absolutely defeated. I’m not a mental health professional, but I am a student of the modern age. I understand how ruthless the school system can be, and I know that something needs to change. Perhaps that would improve the mental health of our youth?
I’ve noticed that now students are aware of the mental health crisis (I deem it a crisis), they joke about it. Mental health has been brought to our attention – the awareness campaigns have worked, but the seriousness of the subject hasn’t resonated. Similar to when students at my school were once informed about domestic violence and drug use, mental illness has become a sort of sick joke. Used repeatedly but negatively in conversation, it becomes normalised. The understanding of the issue’s severity is minimised, eroded until it is virtually gone. Spend an hour in a school and hear: “That Calculus lesson gave me depression” or “This internal is giving me PTSD”.
Let me make it clear – the last thing I want is to be that person who can’t take a joke. I’ll happily laugh along with some of this stuff, just like everyone else. There is, however, a fine line. For a student who does not experience or understand the issue to make a joke – it must be a little demeaning. You never know how people will react, or who is sensitive to what. Making fun of mental health also downplays the actual enormity and dreadfulness of the cases; they are taken less seriously when treated as a joke. Mental health is not taken as heavily as it should be. This is possibly due to said jokes, or maybe because awareness has been gone about in too casual of a way. Some simply do not understand or accept mental health disorders as real. Being a rather recent societal surge, some believe they are a ‘trend’. Parents commonly claim that their children are fabricating a mental disorder for attention. Maybe so, but what if they aren’t? There’s nothing more belittling than being brushed off for something so serious. This occurs frequently in school, where mental health is not really acknowledged, let alone prioritised.
I’ve covered what’s happening. Now, how do we improve the situation? First and foremost, New Zealand’s ‘toughen up’ or ‘she’ll be right’ culture needs to stop. It’s primarily what prevents New Zealanders from feeling comfortable with talking about their own emotions; opening up is not welcomed. I see, however, how changing this is unrealistic. You can’t eliminate a value New Zealand is built on, thus it might be a problem that we are stuck with forever. Change might be near impossible on a social scale, but for individuals, action can be taken. Instead of attempting to alter the core values of the country, there is always the option to seek help. If it’s getting to be too much, or you aren’t enjoying any aspect of school anymore, there are people to talk to and options available. This could be speaking to friends, family, teachers, a school guidance counsellor, (who are very under-utilised) or a professional therapist. There are people out there to help you, so please make use of them. It’s not really possible to escape school until the later years of teenage-hood, so instead we must learn to cope within the system – or to get it changed. It’s time for New Zealanders to realise that there is an issue present, and to do something about it. The unwillingness to accept that it’s a real issue is harming the youth even more. Vulnerability, despite all the campaigns, is still regarded as weakness. Many are too scared to seek help, or to even talk about their struggle. I do commend the New Zealand government for taking some form of action: Proposing to reduce the workload and therefore the stress of Year 11 students. It’s a start. In my opinion, the correlation between mental health and school has not been sufficiently investigated. Students need to either be given an easier path or given tools to cope with the extreme mental strain, because, in my opinion, we are currently being harmed by our high school education.
WHERE TO GET HELP:
If you are worried about your or someone else’s mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.
If you need to talk to someone, the following free helplines operate 24/7:
DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
LIFELINE: 0800 543 354
1737 NEED TO TALK? Call or text 1737
SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 or text 234
There are lots of places to get support. For others, click here.
Sarah is a Year 13 student who loves writing and the subject of English. She intends on one day becoming an Editor or a Technical Writer.