Student stress is a culture, not self-imposed

Varshini Ramanathan, Sports Editor

When I was in eighth grade and we were being recommended for high school classes, teachers warned against taking too many honors courses and instead told us to pursue our passions. This advice flew in one ear and out the other; I was too busy trying to figure out what all my friends were doing.

This sentiment isn’t exclusive to me, nor does it change. It is the root of the problem that administration at Westford Academy is trying to combat: the overwhelming amount of school-related anxiety students were found to have in the 2014 Westford Academy Youth Risk Survey.

58.6% of all high-schoolers and 68.2% of juniors reported experiencing  “somewhat high or very high levels of stress as a result of their academic workload” over the past year.

Westford Academy’s initiative to reduce student stress through a program called Challenge Success aims to make changes to the school infrastructure to reduce the amount of academic work high-schoolers are dealing with throughout the year. Why would it be necessary to implement such a complicated system for such an easily avoided problem? The solution seems frustratingly simple: just stop taking so many high-level courses.

I agree that students often bring stress upon themselves. However, judging from what I’ve seen in both myself and others, course choices are rarely ever choices; rather, they’re dictated by the culture of success at Westford Academy.

Recently, I was talking to an extremely high-achieving classmate who held the firm belief that not doing the highest level of work possible is a waste of potential. That may be an extreme case, but it is representative of the general feeling of overworked students. Rather than parents or colleges, it is peer pressure and personal standards that arise as a result that force students to cling to the narrow path of high achievement, no matter how many sleepless nights they face in the process.

For example, it is not uncommon to find students sneaking out of bed to study or fighting with their parents about sleeping late. Parents may contribute to student stress in some way, but even without their pressure, the stressful environment at WA will definitely persist. Personal desires to achieve one’s goals fall short as long as there is someone else with a more ambitious desire, because then the expectations are constantly being raised.

Teenagers are slaves to conformity, and the same definition of “normal” that gives this school a reputation of diligence and high achievement pressures students to overachieve in academics. The later a student goes to sleep at night, the higher the mark of respect; the more extracurriculars he or she juggles, the greater the sense of envy. Once a student starts on the path to high achievement and becomes entangled in peer pressure, it is difficult to break away from that culture.

Whether it leads to success in later life or a mental breakdown, the fact remains that students do not force themselves into four years of stress for the hell of it. Rather than criticize the choices of students who feel like they have no choice, understanding the reasons for their seemingly irrational behavior is key. Maybe then we can truly challenge success and redefine the system that creates this culture.