by Aanika Parikh
Public speakers, environmental activists, multi-sport athletes: there is very little our youth are not capable of pursuing. After all, most teenagers are free from responsibilities such as paying bills and providing for a family, allowing them to put their youthful determination and energy into action. In fact, UNICEF identifies teenagers as the “driving force of society”. However, the chronic academic fatigue experienced by new generations of teenagers corrupts this youthful optimism and fearlessness, eating away at the very foundation of our society. According to the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Yale Child Study Center, students most frequently report negative emotions including tiredness and stress, and claim they are “not energized or enthusiastic” at school. What causes this fatigue and burnout in what is supposed to be our most active population?
As rates of mental health issues increase in students, researchers desperately look for a root cause. In 2014, a teacher and family therapist attributed the suicides of three high school students in Newton, Massachusetts to a “culture of over-achievement” (WBUR). The increasing pressure on students to spend every waking hour perfecting their GPA and working on extracurricular activities for the sole purpose of gaining admission into a prestigious college proves to be detrimental to students’ health. Moreover, the National Foundation of Sleep determined that students received less than the recommended amount of sleep, leading to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Considering our brains fully develop at the age of 25, the mental consequences plaguing these young minds are especially disheartening. New York University researcher and professor Maria Gwadz expresses, “It’s not developmentally appropriate for them to work so hard.”
With many students’ self-esteem and social status reliant upon their admission into top-tier colleges, including Ivy League universities, their physical and mental health often pushes to the back burner. High school student Ellie claims she “internalized that if she didn’t go to college, she was a failure” (CPR News). The pressure for college admissions increasing and acceptance rates decreasing puts the health and motivation of our students at serious risk. Balancing social and emotional development with academic pressure, fatigued teenagers face low levels of motivation, alertness, and cognitive ability (Evolve Treatment Center).
Although it is our educational system’s responsibility to prepare our students for higher education and life after secondary school, the declining mental and physical state of our youth serves as a wake up call for us to prioritize our teens’ health over their academic achievement. In my home state of Illinois, progress can be seen with the implementation of a law allowing students to take five mental health days and connecting students in need to school social workers. Moreover, my school set aside school days for community-building and social-emotional-learning. These institutional changes, however, must be supplemented with a cultural shift in our glamorization of overachievement and academic status.
Aanika Parikh is a junior in high school who is very passionate about health care and the medical sciences. She is also interested in combating public health inequities and plans to pursue a career as a medical doctor in the future. As an avid writer, Aanika uses her skills to advocate for health-related improvements.