Poll suggests academic pressure, schedules and lack of sleep impacting students’ mental health

Between rigorous academic courses, rigid social expectations and the ever-present challenge of finding a place amongst hundreds of other teenagers, a poll shows Riverside High School students are struggling in every corner of the school.

According to a September 14 Pirates’ Hook poll, 68.8% of the 35 student responders feel their mental health has declined since the start of the school year. 

Stress and anxiety can factor in as early as the first week of school, as students settle into a new routine. Though for many students, it only increases throughout the semester. 

“I feel like I’m going to get burnt out by the end of the year,” said junior Hannah Valente.

According to the World Health Organization in 2021, one in seven 10 to 19-year-olds experience some sort of mental health disorder. And, according to this school-based survey, Riverside students are feeling the effects of this statistic. 

Riverside students say constant academic pressure is a large contributing factor to poor mental health. Over 80% of The Pirates’ Hook poll respondents said they feel pressured by parents and teachers to do well at school, and 43.8% feel similar pressure from their peers. 

Additionally, college and career planning adds even more pressure to maintain sufficient grades. 

“I feel like there is more pressure to focus on your GPA and class rank, which leads kids to only take the hardest classes and not those that they are actually interested in,” said sophomore Elizabeth Healy.

Some students say the anxiety from school finds its way into other parts of their lives as well. 

This year DPS has introduced later start and dismissal times for Riverside. Fifteen minutes may seem inconsequential, but some say the later release time negatively impacts their home life. 

“The start and end time for school definitely contributes to [poor mental health],” said junior Dio Parker. “If school started and ended earlier, I would have much more time for homework, sleep and other after school activities.”

Almost 70% of students surveyed agree that they do not get nearly enough sleep during the school year. According to the Cleveland Health Clinic in March, 2022, lack of sleep can cause a number of severe physical health conditions, as well as mental conditions such as depression.  

Many Riverside students said they feel like the counseling staff is not doing enough to meet their mental health needs. About 70% of students surveyed said they do not feel they get the support they need from their counselors. Some attribute this to new administrators, teacher position turnover and a lack of counseling support.

However, school guidance counselors’ jobs are broad by design. According to the NC Department of Public Instruction, counselors are to “support student academic success.”

Camryn Anderson, a Riverside counselor, said that the size of their caseloads makes it difficult to meet all students’ needs.

“I don’t want to say it’s overwhelming,” said Anderson. “But it’s a lot. A lot to take care of.”

Anderson also said that a counselor’s job isn’t always clearly defined, which results in them being pulled in many different directions by both students and staff. Riverside counselors provide services relating to the social, emotional, and academic needs of students. They also collaborate with the school social worker and other resources to support students in crisis.

But with high teacher turnover and changing school dynamics, counselors are trying to figure out how to balance all of their many responsibilities. 

“Most counselors do appointments,” Anderson said. “I personally refer students to come back during Smart Lunch when I’m not available during class time. Obviously if a student is in crisis, it’s more of a ‘stop what you’re doing and help them’ situation.”

Anderson also noted that many of this year’s counselors are at least relatively new to Riverside. They are still learning to build relationships with students, strengthen communication strategies, and navigate a loaded job description. 

Overall, 97% of students surveyed said they feel unusually stressed and anxious during the school year. Symptoms of depression and anxiety, the two most common conditions students experience, are known to make attending and participating in school difficult, according to the CDC. And tardies and absences policies are stricter this year than in years past, with harsher repercussions that extend to revoked parking privileges.  

“My mental health has been trained to follow my grades, so if I’m doing well, I’m feeling good, ” said junior Seamus Millet. “If I’m doing bad, my mental health [is affected] in a negative way.”

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