The job of helping students who experience stress and anxiety falls to Amy Killy, one of GDS’ two high school counselors. She estimated that by the end of the last school year, she saw roughly a quarter of GDS high schoolers for various reasons including stress about college, school work or something that is happening at home. According to Director of Student Life and Wellness Bobby Asher, three students disenrolled last school year—all for reasons relating to mental health—compared to almost none in past years. Mental health and stress are increasingly prevalent issues at the high school.
GDS is not unique in this regard. Mental health problems and stress are on the rise all over the nation—especially among teens. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, 31 percent of American high schoolers in 2017 reported depressive symptoms. “We are so special and we’re so unique and all of these wonderful things, but this is such a national trend,” Asher said. “It’s everywhere I go.” The real question for him, though, is “Can we make a school that is academically, intellectually engaging where kids are actually healthy?”
Stress and anxiety have always existed for high schoolers. There have always been social fears and pressures; social media has just amplified what was already there. When Asher was in high school there was not the expression “FOMO,” fear of missing out, but students still wanted to feel included. Students’ fears of being judged by their peers have always existed, but the publicity of social life today has exacerbated those fears.
However, senior Abby Murphy, a co-head of Academic Committee, a committee established by the Student Staff Council (SSC), believes that the stress students feel cannot be solely attributed to the pervasiveness of technology in students’ lives: “Adults blame all of the stress of this generation on phones and social media and I think that is a big problem because you are constantly being updated on everyone’s lives, which isn’t great. But also I think that the world isn’t a great place right now so there are lots of reasons to be stressed.”
GDS has always been an intellectually challenging school, and that means that there has always been some component of stress, said Asher. “A reasonable amount of stress is a good thing. But when we put it in the context of mental health and pathological stress, we are in a bad place.”
When Killy, who graduated from GDS in 1990, went to the high school, academic expectations were different. It was socially acceptable to have academic strengths and weaknesses. “I was really good at math and my friend was really good at English,” she described, “and we were okay with that.” Now, there are unrealistic expectations to be good at everything, she explained. “There is nowhere else in your life where there’s that expectation.”
The pressure to be good at everything creates a competitive school atmosphere, which can manifest itself in various ways. “There is some competition around sleep or lack of sleep,” Killy said. “It makes the whole thing snowball.” When Killy went to GDS, that culture of competitive sleep deprivation didn’t exist. Additionally, Killy says, it’s easier to justify a bad grade by saying “I didn’t try, oh, I didn’t have time to study for that,” or “I got no sleep.”
The students at an Academic Committee meeting held in December on stress culture at GDS also highlighted the competitive culture of sleeplessness. “It’s moderately cool to care about your own mental health, but it’s not super cool to care about things that go along with mental health like sleeping and making sure you eat all your meals,” Murphy said in an interview. “People forget about basic health things when trying to be the most successful.”
Since students do not place a premium on mental health, they are more likely to value getting work done than sleeping or taking one less academic class. There is additional competition about extracurriculars and how much time they take up. The students at the Academic Committee meeting acknowledged that there is a social problem that revolves around stress culture that cannot be immediately solved, they believe, by institutional changes.
Then, there are stressors like the college application process. “What used to be maybe a dinner table conversation here or there, a conversation on a bus ride now and again, is 24/7,” Bobby Asher said. For many students, talking about college is hard to avoid and all-consuming. “It’s an information age,” Asher remarked. “I could spend 24 hours a day trying to get my kids into college.”
“The chatter is loud when it comes to college stuff,” Killy said. She believes that the application process makes not just kids, but parents, too, feel anxious. “Not even knowingly sometimes, they project that onto their kids.”
“There is this idea that you have to do well in high school to go to the right college to be happy in life,” described Murphy. And that mentality puts a lot of pressure on students to perform well in high school. Low acceptance rates for college and the pressure that comes from having to make choices that students think will dictate the rest of their life cause them to feel pressure, Murphy explained.
Stress and mental health at GDS have changed a lot in recent years. Asher’s position, director of student life and wellness, was created this academic year because, for years when he was dean of students, he found himself doing what he called “Humpty Dumpty.” He was picking up pieces of kids and putting them back together, switching students in and out of classes, and evaluating which assignments can be forgiven. “I can keep throwing lifesavers to people who are drowning, or we can figure out how to teach them how to swim,” he explained. So he decided to ask Head of School Russel Shaw to create a new position that Asher would occupy to help fix the problem. Along with that change came a new wellness initiative.
The Challenge Success survey that GDS high school students took last year showed, according to Asher, that GDS high schoolers “report high levels of engagement and stress and spend a hell of a lot of time on homework.” Two upcoming changes next school year will help address the stress—the new schedule and the gradual replacement of Advanced Placement (AP) classes with Upper Level (UL) classes.
Phasing out APs will decrease the homework load for many, which will, theoretically, decrease overall stress among the student body. Asher, who used to teach AP Psychology, explained that having to teach to the AP test and being required to get through a large textbook made it so he had to assign a certain amount of work, and when there is less material to cover, the homework load will inevitably decrease. Vinay Mallikaarjun, who currently teaches AP Biology, will no longer have to teach all of biology in one course next year. Instead, he will teach UL Cellular and Molecular Biology. The volume of material that he will have to teach will significantly decrease. He hopes that “students will feel they have a little more time to assimilate and understand these concepts and that will help reduce the stress levels.”
Another step towards reducing student tensions is the new schedule, which will take effect September of 2020. Two notable changes are that the high school start time was pushed to 8:45 and that there are only four classes per day. This will encourage more sleep and limit homework load.
Some students, though, have concerns about whether limiting the number of classes per week will actually decrease homework. They expressed doubts, during another Academic Committee meeting aimed at discussing the new schedule, that having less class time will push some teachers to assign more work outside of class.
Asher also expressed some of his uncertainties around the new changes. “Do I have a little worry that you give adolescents a little more time and space and you want them to reflect and go outside and maybe do something mindful or ride a bike? Do I worry a little bit that gives them more time to get on their computer or their device or do something? Yeah, yeah I do.”
He recounted an apt metaphor by former GDS teacher Ben Benskin: “Don’t buy a new house—you buy a bigger house and you just fill it up with stuff. No matter how big that attic is, no matter how big that basement is, you’ll fill it up with crap.” There is no guarantee that the new schedule or phasing out AP classes will improve stress and mental health at GDS. “I don’t think there is a panacea,” said Asher, but “would I rather you be asleep? It’s a guarantee you’re doing something better for you.”