School’s Effect on Mental Health

         Every night, especially every Sunday night, I say something along the lines of, “I hate school,” or, “I would rather do anything else but go to school tomorrow,” and I know I’m not alone in that. My parents’ reaction to hearing me say this is usually, ‘We thought you loved school,” which is true. I love learning and I used to love school. However, starting in eighth grade I grew very depressed from lack of sleep and stress both academically and socially. I dragged my feet out the door to school and I spent the entire ride sobbing and begging my mom to take me home. 

         I was stressed, I was anxious, and sleep-deprived, and I was just 13 years old. A 13-year-old should be having fun—while being a kid is still acceptable to modern-day society. A 13-year-old should love learning without becoming paralyzed by stress. A 13-year-old shouldn’t be crying in a bathroom stall, waiting for earth science to end. According to professionals, approximately 20% of teens have experienced depression before reaching adulthood, and this risk is only increasing as more stress is added from home and school. Experiencing stress in early life increases the risk of affecting the individual for the rest of their life by tampering with the vulnerable, not yet fully developed, brain, according to the Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders. 

         Especially in a world where we had been living separated from each other during Covid, stuck at home and forced to spend much more time in our thoughts, mental illness rates have been drastically increased. Before the pandemic started in early 2020, just 8.5%of people in the United States were affected by depression compared to the 32.8% who were affected by depression in 2021, according to Jillian McKoy from Boston University. 

         During Covid, when so many people struggled with their mental health as well as general health, I tried my best to use that time away from school to find what it is that I truly love to do. When we left school, I had no idea who I was, and my grades reflected just that misdirection. Starting in the summer of 2020, I developed a few new passions, and to my surprise, it pertained to lessons I was taught in school. I figured out that I love to read and write. However, we went back to in-person school this year, and I stopped reading. I stopped working on that manuscript that’s collecting dust in some folder on my laptop that’s now used for countless hours of homework and Naviance searches. School takes up our minds, making it nearly impossible to think about anything else before yet another assignment is thrown at us or yet another lecture about college and GPAs is given. Why did I feel like I had to stop writing? Is the culture of school really “preparing us for the real world,” or are we just being overworked and held back from exploring our individuality? 

         Trying to learn in an environment such as the one I described is exhausting. I come home from school on a Monday, and I feel like the day is done. I’m tired from sitting up straighter than I usually would, covering all my imperfections with makeup, and walking differently than I would if no one else was around. I know, this sounds so stupid, but in school, we all pretend to be someone we’re not to “fit in,” fearing the inevitable critiques of others, even if it happens subconsciously. A junior at John Jay High School told me, “I have seen students act a specific way in order to ‘look cool’ to someone with a higher social standing in our school.” The social aspect of school is often overlooked as stress-inducing. With social media being much more prevalent than ever, the stress is unavoidable, even at home. Teens who are already feeling depressed have a negative cognitive bias, which affects how they interpret what happens on social media, according to Dr. Radovic from UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. 

         Many high school students have a lot of pressure put on them academically, whether that be from themselves, parents, or teachers. Much of this pressure is rooted from the notion that academic success or some kind of exceptional talent is the only way to have a successful future. A rigorous schedule sure boosts your resume, but also creates a “culture of perfectionism,” according to Valerie Long at CRG. A junior at John Jay told me, “Grades have been detrimental to my mental health. Failing a test feels like the end of the world.” The competitiveness of grades makes imperfect students feel less than those who perpetually succeed on tests, when there should be no reason to feel this way. A concept that is frequently lost in students’ minds is that grades really mean nothing about the person you are; there are so many other factors that outweigh the importance of a perfect GPA. As a junior in high school, I am guilty of thinking this way, too, and let me tell you, it’s exhausting. Every time I get a poor grade on a test the first thing I think is, “Well, there goes my chances at an Ivy,” which is a frightening way to get through school—every slight error makes us feel like all our hard work goes away. 

         Our heads are drilled with the same thing over, and over, and over again: get good grades and get into a great college. Some see this as motivation, others see this as an impossible challenge that wasn’t built to help them succeed. School has always been structured this way, but now that technology is much more available and with not many students willing to go out on college tours due to health concerns, thus applying to many more schools than prior years, college admissions have become more competitive than ever. Just one more weight to add on to students’ minds as the admissions process starts for us juniors. 

         Solutions to the issues posed here are tough. School has evolved over time into what it is today, and it isn’t predicted to be changing anytime soon. However, I learned some things through encountering the issue of mental illness as a result of school. 

         Balancing a social life with schoolwork, and of course, whatever you are passionate about, does wonders for coping with stress. Talking to someone—anyone—is also a great help. Whether that be a friend or therapist, talking about anything taking up your valuable headspace helps to leave room for much more important things. 

         Time management is also something I had to teach myself. Finishing schoolwork at a reasonable time, not spending an unnecessarily long time on it, leaves room for doing something fun or doing something you love. Time is useful, and doesn’t always present itself, so making time for things that are important to you away from schoolwork is the biggest thing I have found to help. 

Avoiding stress in school is nearly impossible, but there are many ways to enjoy it while balancing all other aspects of your life.